Tag Archives: science

Big Ideas – Rocket Science

I hope you view my contributions to the Teen Blog as an invitation to challenge yourself, think hard, and learn new things. This entry marks the start of a new series on the teen blog, Big Ideas. So far, I’ve only introduced major themes and academic concepts obliquely, and as they happen to come up in the course of talking about something else in depth. In these Very Special Episodes, we’re going to tackle them head on, so you can prove to yourself that you can think Big Thoughts fearlessly. Very few things indeed are truly Too Hard or Too Complicated to comprehend the outline of. If you do, though, you’ll understand everything around you in a deeper way. Tragically, you won’t unlock most of these Big Ideas until sometime in college, maybe. I think this is deeply stupid and unfair, so that’s why I’m writing these, to introduce you to as many really Big Ideas as possible, in an approachable way.

To prove to you that you do have the ability to understand Big Ideas, let’s start with the most proverbially Big Idea of all.

This IS Rocket Science

Actually, it’s physics, mostly, and a little bit of chemistry.

Since I’m never one to do anything half-way, let’s make an example, where we can explore some of the math and concepts needed to put a living thing in orbit. That’s right: we’re going to model a solo orbital mission. For this, you’ll need Newton’s laws of motion. (Spoiler Alert: FOR NOW, you need Newton’s laws. I’m planning to cover special and general relativity later.) I’m going to write a summary in modern English, because here’s how Newton put it.

Yeah. So, basically everything academic that was published back then was in Latin, so everyone across Europe with a high level of education could read it. This is also the book in which Newton details calculus (Don’t forget about Liebniz too!), and also there’s universal gravitation in there, and also some extensions of Kepler’s laws… the Principia is kind of a big deal.

Are you ready? Here’s your cheat sheet!

newton's laws, the gravity equation, and the gravitational constant in a cheat sheet.

Tricky. How about we pick a model, where someone’s done something similar before?

Mercury-Atlas 8 summary, comparing the mass of the capsule to the launch vehicle.

Now, let’s chart a path to orbit by thinking through what we have to do to get something to orbit the Earth and come back. The objective is less to do the math than it is to get an intuitive idea of what the math means, and therefore a feel for the physics. It’s all about how much the mass of the rocket escalates as you add more mass it needs to carry.

why a Syrian Hamster is perfect for a space mission.
escalating rocket size.
escalating rockets 2
escalating rockets 3

P. S. A note on just how dang fast these rockets have to get the capsule to. Sigma 7’s orbital period was a little under 89 minutes. Imagine circling the entire Earth in just under an hour and a half. That’s how fast something has to go to stay in orbit. Given that F = ma, you don’t have to do the exact math to figure that even a tiny chunk of space junk slamming into a satellite or something at these velocities would be a Very Bad Thing, especially since this sort of collision would result in even more space junk orbiting at stupidly high speeds.

P. P. S. For a nice illustration of how the need to accelerate to a high enough speed fast enough impacts rocket design, compare the Atlas D series to the Saturn V rockets. “But Katherine,” I hear you whine, “what about the outer solar system probes, like New Horizons, or Voyager? Those rockets were way smaller.” Indeed. Probes can’t suffocate, die of thirst, or starve. Spacefaring humans definitely can. With a probe, you just need to get it out of Earth’s gravity well, and coast to a bigger planet or several to get a boost from their gravity wells to gain more speed. If it takes decades to do it, who cares, because it’s powered by Plutonium pellets. It’ll be fine, probably. With people, they need to breathe air, drink water, and eat. You gotta get ’em to the Moon and back, FAST. The Saturn V is a balancing act between how much fuel you need to accelerate to speeds that will save you on mass in terms of air, water, and food vs more fuel. It weighs 2,970,000 Kg. That’s a gobsmacking 5,940 Thoroughbred race horses. Glorious.

P. P. P. S. (Post-Post-Post Script) It should be self-evidently clear by now that Newton was right about that First Law. There’s precious little to exert a force to slow you down in space. The Earth doesn’t need rocket engines to keep going around the Sun. The Moon doesn’t need rocket engines to keep going around the Earth. I’m sorry if I just ruined several space odyssey movies for you. No stern chases in space. If your ship is already going faster than your pursuers’ top speed, you already got away, past tense. Just NO. Also, no sneaking up on things in space. Don’t even get me started on the consequences of relativistic speeds and Faster-Than-Light-Travel. We’ll get to ruining space movies in devastating detail later, when we do relativity, I’m sure.

The Surgeon General of Bacotania

I find that news releases on health research often do a lousy job of communicating what the findings actually are, and how they might inform people’s decisions. Often, in order to make sense of them at all, you have to know some statistics, read between the lines, and cut through the hype. The problem seems to be especially severe in the case of a study on the scale of something impacting populations, but hyped for the public because the authors don’t trust the reader to care unless they’re scared. There’s a difference between public health and personal health, and although the two are connected, statistically, the conclusions can be wildly different depending on your point of view – managing populations, or managing your own choices. Also, when people make decisions about their own health and safety, they fall prey to some particularly nasty logical fallacies (all natural means harmless, or it’s not cancer, so it’s fine – or, “not likely to be me” means that “it won’t happen to me”). Even nastier, research on sensational subjects – like all scientific research – often turns up complicated or ambiguous results that get distilled into inaccurate clickbait. Never fear, though, let’s play pretend, and sort through, now and forever, how to think about statistics and clickbait-y health headlines. (I sourced the images in this article from Wikimedia Commons, as usual, and the attributions are at the bottom of this page, to help maintain the suspension of disbelief.)

 

About Bacotania

Vintage photo of a woman wearing bacon slabs on her feet, standing in a giant skillet.

1. Skillet Skating is a Bacotanian folk dance, recently nominated for inclusion in the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists in which the dancer wears slabs of bacon on their feet and skates around a giant skillet with a giant spatula. A good performance is said to prevent the sticking of eggs in the coming year.

Bacotania is an imaginary country with a rich cultural history deeply intertwined with the consumption of cured pork. The total population is about 12 million, and national holidays include February 4th, Remembrance Sausage Day, and October 16th, Bacotanian Liberation Day. The festivities of Liberation Day culminate in a Liberation Day Bonfire Feast in which chunks of pork belly are roasted on sticks over Liberation Day Bonfires in honor of the heroic air drop of canned bacon into the besieged capital city of Schlachteplatte.

A giant can of bacon, 70 years old, WWII rations from the UK.

2. One of the historic bacon cans in the National Museum of Bacotania.

A fire pit with two long forks full of fresh raw bacon held over the flames.

3. Bacontanian Liberation Day Bonfire with skewers of bacon sizzling over the open flames.

Needless to say, bacon is very important to the people of Bacotania, and the loss of cured pork products would cause immense damage to the economy and culture of the country. The 2015 decision by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer to classify processed meat consumption as a Group 1 Carcinogen was met with increasing public unrest, including mass demonstrations outside the Surgeon General’s office in Schlachteplatte, which led to the Surgeon General stepping down from their post.

Congratulations! YOU have just been appointed Surgeon General of Bacotania.

What is your advice, concerning the consumption of cured pork products?

You’ll need some further information:

What is a Class 1 Carcinogen? In a masterpiece of shoddy journalism, a lot of press outlets didn’t discuss what the classes even meant. The IARC classifies substances based on how conclusive the evidence is that they cause cancer at all, NOT even remotely based on how dangerous they are. There’s only one item in Group 4, the Probably Does NOT Cause Cancer group, and that’s Caprolactam. I’d never heard of caprolactam before doing the research for this post. It’s used in nylon manufacture, and it’s definitely not harmless, but we’re pretty sure it doesn’t cause cancer. Nobody seems to have studied whether, say, pure water causes cancer.

What is an individual’s chances of getting cancer from bacon? The average lifetime chance of getting colon cancer is about 4%. According to the World Health Organization, the chance of getting colon cancer rises by 18% for every 50 grams of processed meat consumed per day. Now, we need one more bit of information, and that is the average consumption of processed meats. According to this study, average daily consumption of meat (all types) was 128 grams per day, and 22% of that was processed meat. So (22% of 128 grams gives you how many grams are processed meat) that means that the average person eats 28.16 grams of processed meat per day. So, if you start at 4% with 28.16 grams, and add 18% of 4% for every 50 grams eaten over the 28.16 gram starting point, you end up with an average Bacotanian’s cancer risk.

How much bacon does the average Bacotanian citizen eat? Bacotanians are very fond of processed meat, and a traditional Bacotanian Breakfast involves lots of sausage, so they eat twice the processed meat that Americans do, at 56.32 grams per day.

What is the average Bacotanian’s cancer risk then? Well, we need to figure out how much more processed meat than the American average an average Bacotanian eats, and then figure out what proportion of 50 grams it is, and then add that proportion of the 18% of 4% to the average 4%. Got it? Let’s go!

56.32 – 28.16 = 28.16, because it’s twice, remember? Easy!

28.16 extra grams eaten divided by 50 (grams to raise risk by 18% of 4%) = 0.5632 (amount of the 18% excess risk we should add)

0.5632 of 18% = 10.1376% Cool. Now we’re getting somewhere.

10.1376% of 4% = about 0.004, which is 0.4%

So, the average Bacotanian faces an elevated lifetime colorectal cancer risk of 4.4% on account of their huge processed meat habit. This means that for the average bacotanian, their MORTALITY ROULETTE WHEEL lands on DEATH BY BACON not much more often at all compared to the American population. (Bacotanian healthcare and mortality from colorectal cancer are comparable to ours.)

How many excess colorectal cancer cases are likely to occur in Bacotania if people continue to eat processed meat at this pace? Well, 0.4% of the total population are going to lose that roulette round, so…

0.04% of 12 million is… 48,000. YIKES! That means that Forty-eight THOUSAND Bacotanians are going to get cancer from bacon, above and beyond even the background colorectal cancer rates. If you factor that in, it’s a staggering 528,000 cancer cases. The cost to society, and the personal emotional toll on all those families is absolutely astronomical. And, clearly, partially preventable.

So, that’s how the same decision – eat the bacon, tell people not to eat bacon – ends up looking very different from the perspectives of an individual Bacotanian and the Surgeon General of Bacotania. The Bacotanian might well accept the risk, shrug, and tuck into a full Bacotanian breakfast of smoked sausages anyway. Note that although it’s a Class 1 Carcinogen, processed meat has a much smaller chance to cause cancer, compared to other Class 1 Carcinogens, like Asbestos, which (depending on your own exposure) can have lifetime risk rates as high as a 25% if you were a construction carpenter in the United Kingdom for a couple decades before 1980. Also, note that this only concerns cancer risk, not whether the cancer has a high mortality rate, and not concerning other health risks associated with the substance. (Remember that although Caprolactam is the sole occupant of Probably Does Not Cause Cancer Group 4, it’ll still cause your skin to slough off. Nice.)

So, maybe suggest that Bacotanians cut back on processed meats, but that the Bacotanian Liberation Day Bonfires likely won’t do you any harm.

Probably want to suggest the closure of Ye Wooly Salamander Particle Board Mill, though…

 

  1. Vintage Photo, United States of America. No, I have no idea what’s going on here. By UW Digital Collections [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons
  2. British Ration Can of Bacon from WW II. Seriously, my heaviest of two cats weighs 12 lbs. That’s a LOT of 70 year old bacon. By KingaNBM [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons
  3. Hungarian Szalonnasütés By Christo [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Bon Air Science Fair!

This upcoming Tuesday at 6pm, Bon Air Library will be hosting a program full of science experiments for teens, all supplies provided! Experiments will include Elephant Toothpaste, Silly Putty, Ice Cream, and building a wave machine. Come check it out!

What’s Elephant Toothpaste? Here’s a more extreme demonstration!

You Fight Like a Cow

Monkey Island notwithstanding, your life might just be better if you take “you fight like a cow” as a compliment. The truth of the matter is that – whatever Tennyson and the Victorians’ moralistic viewpoints – “nature red in tooth and claw” really mostly holds true only for predatory attacks on food animals in actual nature. Even then, few predators will attack prey with a mind to getting in a fight. After all, if your food stands a good chance of thrashing you in a fight, the predators won’t be around for long. An actual fight is just too risky. It’s not like there’s emergency veterinary hospitals in nature. Even a small cut could get infected and eventually kill you. A broken bone or chipped tooth could prove fatal if it means you can’t catch meals. As an aside, this is one of the major forces shaping the evolution of venom. The geographic cone snail has some of the most outrageously potent and fast-acting venom of any creature, purely because it’s a snail that eats fish. If a fish, once bitten, had any chance to run away or fight back, cone snails would have a very rough time just catching breakfast, let alone surviving it.

Given how much animals in the wild stand to lose from fighting, most will go to a lot of effort to avoid a fight in the first place. Lots of animals have specialized equipment – horns, antlers, ossicones, tusks, gill frills, song – specifically for settling disputes with other members of their own species in a way that keeps it from getting too violent too often. There’s a whole suite of behaviors that virtually all animals have to prevent fights in the first place and settle those that do occur as fast as possible.

Let’s talk about cattle. They actually have one of my favorite conflict sequences, and you can plainly see how cow disputes progress through several stages at each of which the parties have a chance to de-escalate the conflict, or decide to proceed to the next step.

The Official Cow Fight Procedure:

  1. Rival Cow Spotted!
    • If you know this cow, and you each know where you stand with each other, you’re cool, and both can back down now. If either has any doubts, proceed to step 2.
  2. Angry mooing.
    • Let the rival know you’re not happy about this incursion. If the rival responds with more angry mooing, and you don’t want to back down either, keep up the noise and proceed to step 3. Otherwise, if you get no response, the rival agrees to back down.
  3. Pawing of dirt to signal aggressive intent. 
    • If each cow is still prepared to get in a shoving contest, they’ll proceed to step 4.
  4. Standing sideways to each other to show off size.
    • If either individual decides that the other is too big to take on, they’ll just quiet down and walk away to eat grass. Otherwise, if both are convinced that they can take the other, proceed to step 5.
  5. Prepare to lock horns.
    • Both cattle lower their heads. This is the last chance to back down, and can be very brief.
  6. Shoving contest.
    • The rivals lock horns, or rest their heads against each other (if polled or hornless), and try to shove the other until one disengages and walks away.
  7. Resolution.
    • When one of the rivals backs down, it is possible to continue angry mooing, and allow the rival to angrily moo a bit to save face. If the issue isn’t settled, the cycle might repeat (but usually doesn’t) until the cattle can predict who will win the shoving contest and accept the results. Generally, just once is enough to settle the issue. Most of the time, cow fights don’t even get to step 6 at all before one of the rivals backs down.

You can watch the whole complicated sequence below, with these two Hereford bulls.

Switzerland has a whole sport based on introducing cows to each other in the Spring. The cows spend the Winter on their individual farms, but in the Spring, they get together again for the drive to alpine pastures. Of course the cows need to settle who’s top cow, and it was only a matter of time before people started painting numbers on their sides and setting up concession stands. Yes, these are actual cows, too, not bulls. Note udders. When a cow backs down, she’s removed from the ring until only one cow remains, and is crowned Queen of the Cow Thunderdome. Sorry: “Queen of Queens” technically, as the cow fighting is called the “combat de reines” or literally the “fight of queens.” Cows are Very Serious Business in Switzerland, in case you couldn’t tell.

These cows are all members of the Herens breed of cattle, and are selectively bred for cow fighting. Meet Penelope, a Queen of Queens.

Notice that nearly all of the Official Cow Fight steps are about communicating a problem and providing plenty of chances to back down. And if the other cow does, but they make a lot of noise about it, let them. It’s all just angry mooing.

Once everything’s settled, even Herens Queens are perfectly chill with each other, and pass their Summers in idyllic alpine meadows.

Plenty of other animals have an official fight procedure, like cows do, it’s just that in cows, it’s so clear and well-defined. There are plenty of videos of Complicated Cat Space Negotiations, for example. Just remember: if there’s video of it, someone found it interesting and exciting enough to record, so for all of these videos of cow fights, there’s lots and lots of cow fights that never happened. This is an example of selection bias – if you were to study how often cows fight, cow fight videos on YouTube would be junk data to draw on, because people are way more likely to record and post interesting video of cows fighting than the many, many allegedly boring instances of cows not fighting.

That Actually Happened: Princess Ruth Ke’elikolani

What is a princess? You’re probably thinking something along the lines of this:

A pretty woman in a fancy gown lying to a frog about kissing him.

Anne Anderson’s illustration from The Frog Prince.

Fancy gowns and circlets notwithstanding, princesses usually get married off for political purposes to princes, and every major event in their lives is generally determined by other people’s decisions. Queens regnant – those who rule in their own right – are not what you’re thinking about, and not what people mean by princesses. That’s not how it generally works in Europe. We could go on yet another deep introspective pop cultural analysis of what it means that princesses are role models for young children, OR we could unpack that massive string of qualifiers I just dropped, and you probably didn’t notice, because we’re so used to thinking of European history as just plain history. Nevermind that one cannibalistic intrigue riot/coup that the Netherlands had that we already treated, or the fact that rage-throwing people out windows as a political statement was common enough in Prague (then Bohemia, now Czech Republic) that there’s a word for it: defenestration. Or the practice of castrating boys so their voices don’t change during puberty so they can sing soprano for the opera, or church choirs, or … I could go on forever about how weird European history is. No, really. I could. It does a disservice to the richness of history to just let your mind gloss over it like it’s normal. All history is weird and wonderful, and all you have to do is take a closer look. Everything deserves to be weird; everything deserves attention.

Princesses who actually do something: that’s not generally how it works in Europe.

 

Hawai‘i: Structure of Power

Let’s put the ‘ back in Hawai’i, first. What is a ‘ anyway? It’s a glottal stop. The little pause added to make space between d’s in “good dog” – “good’dog.” Watch this video, and listen to some Hawai’ian language, to get a feel for how it all goes together. Back with me? Good. We’re going to be using that glottal stop something fierce. The first time I use a term, it will be in bold, but I’m not going to put all non-English terms in italics, because this would be almost impossible to read.

Welcome to Hawai’i before the takeover by the United States. The Hawai’ian ruling class are the ali’i (not to be confused with the ‘a’ali’i which is a plant – that’s why spelling is important). This class derives its power from their ancestors, reaching back to the gods. High ali’i, or ali’i nui, ruled entire islands in the archipelago, and bestowed land use rights on ali’i below them, who in turn had the right to give land use rights to the people who would work the land. This authority and power ultimately passed on from the gods themselves is called mana. Depending on family ties, ritual correctness (observing kapu – ritual restrictions), political power, and social prestige, different people had more or less mana.

(I’m sure I’ve said it before, but I like history because it’s like looking under the hood of a car, and seeing how it works. Sure, it’s all functioning automobiles, but what’s going on inside could be wildly different. Some civilizations are like four-stroke engines, some the rotary engine, and some are like electric induction motors – common in household appliaces, but also in electric cars. Completely different mechanics might be happening, and that’s exciting and cool!)

Anyway, Princess Ruth Ke’elikolani lived in a time when the Kingdom of Hawai’i was in crisis. Just years from being overthrown by (mostly) fruit magnates and a pro-US navy cabal and handed over to the United States, the court and ruling Kamehameha family were under tremendous pressure to conform to European norms as to what a monarchy looked like, and how royals acted. The Hawai’ian royal house pursued a policy of assimilation – to try to win respect of the great world powers by looking and acting as much like European royalty as possible, in the hope that despite being not as strong militarily, they would still be respected as kings and queens that they were.

World History Spoiler Alert: ultimately, this effort was doomed because of racism, pineapples, and Pearl Harbor. Racism, pineapples, and Pearl Harbor are all connected, because of imperialism as an economic and social structure. What do the great powers want? Sw33t pineapple fr00t. How will they secure it? Navy depot at Pearl Harbor. Justification for overthrowing the Kingdom of Hawai’i to get it and cash in? Racism.

Pineapple field, with pineapples, in O'ahu.

By Nandaro [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Behold! Pineapple, toppler of nations. The Kingdom of Hawai’i wasn’t the first, or the last, government to be taken out on account of the fruit cartel lobby, and their insatiable bloodlust for sw33t l33t fr00t l00t. There’s a reason vicious dictatorships that have the window dressing of democracy with none of the actual government mechanics of it are known as repúblicas bananeras. Why, on this glorious blue Earth, there’s a clothing brand named after this phenomenon, I have no idea.

Anyway anyway, concerning political authority and mana, being a princess as an ali’i isn’t just a matter of being a daughter of a king or something. (Being a princess if you’re a member of European royalty generally is a matter of being a daughter of a king. Unless you’re legitimized or something later, which is another thing I want to treat on this blog, because it’s delightfully complicated. And, after all that, you won’t be a princess, technically. Looking at you, Marie Anne de Bourbon.) Princess Ruth Ke’elikolani’s mother was High Chieftess Keoua-wahine, and two other powerful ali’i claimed her as their daughter, which means that she had two well-connected fathers, as well. As such a po’olua ali’i, she was set up for a position of great status and power in the Kingdom. Then, as part of the Kamehameha family’s attempts to remake the government along a European model, the Constitution of 1840 effectively barred her path from the pinnacle of power by making her birth a liability rather than an asset. This in no way stopped her from being Governor of Hawai’i, though. While the rest of the royals tried their hardest to erase their culture and become as European as possible, Princess Ruth Ke’elikolai Wasn’t Having It. At All.

Princess Ke'elikolani Not Having It at a photography session.

Magnificently Not Having It. About role models: make having just 1/10th of this self-assurance and dignity a life goal. Of course, she comes by it naturally, but still.

She built several huge palaces on her lands (which were most of the Big Island, after all) in the latest architectural fashions. Check out her last, and fanciest palace, Keoua Hale, finished right before her death, in 1883.

An incredibly fancy, Late Victorian style tropical palace.

This palace is actually bigger than the official royal palace of the Kamehameha family, too… just sayin’.

BUT, she also had a traditional grass palace built, too, as a statement of her support and patronage of Hawai’ian culture.

A high-roofed grass house, with glazed windows.

The Palace of Not Having It. You can even see one of her other palaces, in the background.

She also supported traditional culture and arts, like the Hawai’ian language, poetry and verse, chanting, lei making, religion, and hula dancing. The art of hula – under pressure from missionaries and having lost wealthy noble patrons to their tactic of assimilation – nearly died out. Let me say that again: 150 years ago, the world almost lost hula dancing. Princess Ruth Ke’elikolani commissioned performances, and supported traditional dance, and effectively saved hula for a revival under King David Kalakaua. No Princess Ke’elikolani, ultimately no Merrie Monarch Festival.

 

Not Generally How it Works in Europe…

While the United States of America was coveting the heck out of Pearl Harbor, and fruit merchants were plotting to overthrow the Hawai’ian government, women (especially married ones) in the United States, and much of the European-derived cultures worldwide were under coverture. This legal status for women meant that they couldn’t bring suit, they couldn’t own property independently of a man, except in some very specific corner cases, and they didn’t even have rights to their own children. In short, women were not legal entities on their own at all, much less Governors of Hawai’i. Oh, and don’t dare think of just not marrying, because women couldn’t inherit property either, and were barred from most jobs – at least most jobs that made actual money. That’s why the stakes are so high for the Bennett girls in Pride and Prejudice – if they don’t marry, they lose everything.

One way to think of it is this: Princess Ruth Ke’elikolani was a (massive) property owner in her own right, and a political force to be reckoned with. She was also married. When did married women in Kentucky gain the right to own and control their property – you know, actually have property? Go on. Guess.

 

 

 

 

 

Yowch. No, really. Kentucky finally passed a Married Women’s Property Act in 1894. Eleven years after Princess Ruth Ke’elikolani – Governor of Hawai’i, wealthy landowner, patron of traditional culture – died. That’s just one way that this long, twisted tale of social power structures, greedy fr00t magnates, hula, and the power of force of personality casts its shadow on your life, right now. Everything is interesting, everything is connected.

It’s the Potatoes

March 17th is St. Patrick’s Day, which in the USA is generally treated as an excuse to wear green, eat and drink green things, and party.

Everybody’s Irish for a day, even if you’re Japanese:

Yokohama St. Patrick's Day parade.

By Kounosu (Self-photographed) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

This mystery might be clarified a bit with the information that the picture above was taken in Yokohama, which has a massive United States armed forces base in it. Which still begs the question of why St. Patrick’s Day is such a big deal. Sure, it’s an excuse for a parade and party, but we live in a city that has a two week festival for a two minute horse race. There are plenty of excuses, so why this one? Why the Irish, specifically?

A llama in a tiny hat.

By Rod Waddington from Kergunyah, Australia (Llama, Salta, Argentina) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

A llama in a tiny hat. We’re not in Japan anymore.

The story of how St. Patrick’s Day partying went global actually starts in the Andes mountains of South America. Yes, really. Lots of wild potato species live here, and the people in the region domesticated some, and bred them into what would become a world-dominating staple crop. Potatoes are basically awesome in every way. You can feed a family for a year on just a quarter acre of potatoes. You can freeze dry them and store them almost indefinitely. Or you can put ’em in a giant warehouse with EPIC MUSIC. Even if they’re not freeze dried, they keep well as long as you put them in a cool dark place. Eventually, when Europeans came to the Americas, the potato was one of the many food crops they brought back with them.

MEANWHILE in Ireland, geopolitics and economical stuff was going on. Irish tenant farmers grew cash crops for export to England on behalf of their – again, mostly English – landlords. Enter the potato. Since you can get so many potatoes out of such a small amount of land, the tenant farmers came to depend on potatoes as a staple food crop. Less land devoted to food production means more land for the cash cropping, which also means more export profits. A large part of the population soon depended on potatoes to supply the bulk of their caloric needs.

MEANWHILE MEANWHILE a disease of potatoes  – now known as Phytophthora infestans or potato late blight – was introduced to Europe, which – combined with bad weather – caused a massive failure of the potato crop.

A very bad potato, rotten on the inside, thanks to potato late blight.

Potato Late Blight: that’s not good. It’s also not edible.

For people affected by the same potato disease and weather in most other parts of Europe, this was bad news, but they had other crops to fall back on. In Ireland, though, where much of the population relied very heavily on potatoes, this was a catastrophe. With the food crop completely rotten, and government failing to take effective action in time to prevent the food shortage, mass starvation set in, and much of the surviving population left Ireland. Here’s a map of Irish population decline during the Irish Potato Famine. Maps are wonderful things. There’s plenty more reading you can do on the Irish Potato Famine, and the Irish diaspora, too.

Long story short, famines aren’t like natural disasters; they require societal specialization followed up by food crop failure and breakdowns of organization or failures of supply in order to happen. So that’s how green cookies, South American civilizations, and why we have seed banks like the Svalbard Global Seed Vault are interconnected. Everything is interesting, and everything is intertwined. Explore connections. Generally, the more you learn about something, the more interesting it becomes.

English Language: Bizarrely Precise Animal Vocabulary

As hinted at in the Amazing Mules post, due to some historical quirks, the English language has a truly ridiculous amount of incredibly specific words relating to animals. This goes light years beyond preschool “the Cow Goes Moo” stuff that everybody knows. In fact, most of this is so insanely, ludicrously exacting that you’re unlikely to ever use it or even know it, unless you take up a hobby related to the animal in question, in which case it falls under specialized jargon. Why learn it at all then? Because these words can reveal an awful lot about the history and society that produced them, and the people who need this vocabulary today. You’re not going to come up with and agree on an intricate vocabulary relating to, say, inducing a bird of prey to hork up a hairball made of its un-digestible prey remains – called casting, unless it’s really important. Rest assured, what you see here is just the very tip of the English animal terms iceberg.

Here’s your obvious LANGUAGE WARNING for the post: due to use as insults, some of these words have become “bad words” in modern English. I can’t censor anything, since the whole point is to learn the vocabulary.

 

Keep an Eye Out! It’s Historical Background!

There are a few processes at work here, as to why English has so many animal vocabulary words. Let’s look at four of them:

  1. Modern English is a constantly changing mishmash of several languages. At the time in which these animals were so important, the Normans were in power in England, and a lot of the courtly animal-terms were adopted from their language. This is especially obvious in the case of meat vs the animal it comes from. This is why it’s a quarter pound ground beef (beuf) burger, and not a quarter pound ground COW FLESH burger. As a contrasting example that proves the rule, this didn’t happen in the related language German, and that’s why in that language, pork is literally SWINE FLESH.
  2. (Highly ritualized) hunting was a foundation of medieval European society, and was a means of enforcing class dynamics. Proper use of the jargon separated the nobles from everyone else, and maintained the shape of society. There are several weird holdovers of this dynamic today, that we notice from the United States of America, where we jumped the tracks before a few key social changes in Britain, proper. There’s probably a whole post on this in the future, but, suffice to say in Britain hunting and hunting opposition is very much tied into class conflict, where here it isn’t so much. Robin Hood was outlawed for killing the King’s deer, but here everybody was eating venison to survive, and even today we just try to make a buck. Look for animals people probably hunted.
  3. Actual jargon. In the same way that we work with computers as a basic matter of keeping our society running, and therefore we have a bunch of highly technical terms for computers, what computers do, and parts of a computer, when everything ran on literal horsepower, there was a whole host of specialized horse terms. Look for animals people needed and lived closely with in their daily lives, or to do their jobs.
  4. The wanna-be brigade. For some of these animals, when they were beginning to be bred selectively in the 18th and 19th Centuries, people who participated in this dawning animal fancy wanted to make their hobby more respectable and legitimate by coming up with specialized vocabulary, to match the historical ones. Look for animals that were part of the selective breeding boom in the last 300 years, like cats.

 

Let’s Learn Some Really Precise Animal Terms in English:

Ankole Watusi cattle lying around in a field.

Ankole Watusi cattle in a field. My personal favorite breed of cattle. They’re a status symbol, a medium of exchange, and basically the cattle equivalent of a purse dog. Cows aren’t always about meat and milk.

The Cow Goes Moo!

The sound they make – low

Cows, as a species – cattle

A group of cattle – herd

Cattle-like – bovine

Baby – calf

Female, before first birth – heifer

Female, after giving birth – cow

Male, castrated – ox, steer

Male, adult and intact – bull

Female, born as part of a set of fraternal twins with a male calf, exposed to enough testosterone in the womb that she acts like a bull – freemartin (see what I mean about ridiculously specific?)

 

 

The Horse Goes Neigh!

The sound they make – neigh, whinny, snort, scream, nicker

Horses, as a species – horses

A group of horses – herd

A family group of feral horses – band

An all-male group of mostly unrelated feral horses – bachelor herd

Horse-like – equine

Baby – foal

Female, before puberty – filly

Female, after puberty – mare

Male, before puberty – colt

Male, castrated – geldling

Male, adult and intact – stallion, horse

Male, adult, and with an un-descended testicle – ridgling

 

The Ass / Donkey Goes Hee-Haw!

The sound they make – bray

Donkeys, as a species – donkeys, asses

Doney-like – asinine

A group of donkeys – herd

Baby – foal

Female, intact – jenny, jennet

Male, castrated – gelding

Male, adult and intact – jack

 

A small flock of sheep on a rainy day.

Sheep are also amazing. Shear them to get wool. The grease from the wool is highly prized lanolin, which is sold in high-end skin creams.

The Sheep Goes Baa!

The sound they make – baa

Sheep, as a species – sheep

Sheep-like – ovine

A group of sheep – herd

Baby – lamb

Female, intact – ewe

Male, castrated – wether (a wether won’t get your ewes preggers, or go aggro on the other sheep, and he’ll follow the herd wherever they go. They used to put bells on them, so that if you heard the belled wether, you’d know where the rest of the sheep were. That’s why the word for an individual that shows the direction that the rest are going, or where they are is BELLWETHER.)

Male, adult and intact – ram

 

The Whale Goes (cetacean vocal range extends from infrasound to ultrasound – good luck with figuring that out).

A group of whales – pod

Baby – calf

Female – cow

Male – bull

 

The Cat Goes Meow!

The sound they make – meow, hiss, caterwaul

Cats, as a species – cats

Cat-like – feline

A group of cats – clowder

Baby – kitten

Female, intact – queen

Male, castrated – gib

Male, adult and intact – tom

 

birds, flowers, and puppies silk scroll.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a human culture that doesn’t have dogs. The style of this Korean silk painting by Yi Am (Joseon Dynasty, first half of the 1500s) just makes them look even softer and cuter. PUPPIES!!

The Dog Goes Bark!

The sound they make – bark, howl, growl

The howling of a pack of hunting hounds on the trail of prey – bay

Dogs, as a species – dogs

Dog-like – canine

A group of dogs – pack

Baby – puppy

Female – bitch

Male – dog

 

The Falcon Goes Skreeee!

(Except they don’t, generally. The famous piercing scream used as a stock sound effect for birds of prey is actually very specific only to the Red Tailed Hawk, which isn’t even a falcon. Birds you’ve heard this used for, like Bald Eagles, actually make very different sounds – in their case, the Bald Eagle goes tseep eep-eeep eep eep … twitter-itter-itter-itter … twitter-itter … tseep eep.)

Falcons, as a group – falcons

Baby – eyas

Female – falcon

Male – tiercel (Male birds of prey are usually noticeably petite compared to the brawnier females, on average about 1/3 smaller. As such, the males are quicker, but the females generally take larger prey, and were the more favored birds to hunt with.)

 

 

The Chicken Goes Cluck!

The sound they make – cluck, cheep, crow

Chickens, as a species – chickens

A group of chickens – flock

Baby – chick, chicken

Female, adult – hen

Male, castrated – capon (Yes, this is a thing. Fun fact about puberty: the signal to stop the growth spurt, develop secondary sex characteristics, and put on muscle in male animals is sent by the testes. Some castrated male animals go through a growth spurt that never slams to a halt like this, since the signal never comes, and get bigger and fatter than they would have, until the rest of their hormonal system just kind of gives up on puberty and settles down. As the biggest, fattest, and most tender of chickenkind, as well as the fact that some surgery is required to make them, capons are pretty expensive. Check the specialty frozen meats in the store to see what I mean.)

Male, adult and intact – rooster, cock

 

ducks as far as the eye can see.

Although they’re not so common here, and therefore quite expensive, ducks are a hugely important livestock and eggs animal in other parts of the world.

The Duck Goes Quack!

The sound they make – quack

Ducks, as a species – ducks

A group of ducks – flock

Baby – duckling

Female – duck

Male – drake

 

The Goose Goes Honk!

The sound they make – honk, cackle

A group of geese – flock

Baby – gosling

Female – goose

Male – gander

 

The Swan Goes (…)

The sound they make – hiss, (there’s a reason they’re called Mute Swans)

A group of swans – flock

Baby – cygnet

Female – pen

Male – cob

 

What Does the Fox Say?

What does the fox say? – yip, yelp

Foxes, as a species – foxes

Fox-like – vulpine

Baby – kit

Female – vixen

Male – tom

 

Mistletoe

In the middle of Winter, in our temperate climate, you might not think there’s much nature to be seen. But, right now, with leaves off the deciduous trees, it’s the best time of the year to spot a freaky plant parasite of trees. Plants grow so slowly, that you might think they’re not very lively, or even boring. Look closer, though, and be patient, and you might see that plants are perfectly capable of as much drama and violence as animals are, if given enough time. From competition to chemical warfare, plants are actually fairly exciting, and this post is all about the most famous plant parasite of all.

Mistletoe is the common name of a family of related plants, the Santalaceae, nearly all of which are parasites of other plants, mostly trees. During the Summer, when their host trees are covered in leaves, you might not even know they’re there, but in Winter, the mistletoe growing on the tree is exposed, evergreen, when the rest of the tree is left bare. From a distance, mistletoe growing in a tree looks like this:

Green, bushy mistletoe in a bare tree.

By Lienhard Schulz (Own work) CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

It’s a little green bush, perched in the branches of a tree. How does it happen? Well, here in Kentucky, we mostly have Phoradendron leucarpum, which makes white berries.

Eastern white mistletoe berries.

By Joe Decruyenaere (originally posted to Flickr as 010408 080) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Although the berries are poisonous to mammals, birds love them, and eat them, pooping out the seeds on the branches of trees, and then the seeds germinate. The seeds sprout, but instead of making roots like other plants, they make a structure called a haustorium which penetrates and connects with the host plants’ vascular system through the bark, delivering nutritious sap to the mistletoe. These little green vampires continue to suck the sap of their hosts while also growing green leaves and stems, in the form of a bushy growth. Our mistletoe is capable of making its own sugars with sunlight energy, just like regular plants, to some extent, but it can’t make roots and instead literally taps into the host to get what it needs.

mistletoe on a branch, chillin' like a villain.

By Loadmaster (David R. Tribble) This image was made by Loadmaster (David R. Tribble) Email the author: David R. Tribble Also see my personal gallery at Google Photos (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

A few mistletoe bushes won’t hurt a healthy tree, but one that’s already sick could be killed by a very heavy infestation. Mistletoe bushes are just like plant leeches, if, instead of biting, a leech actually grafted itself to you, interconnecting your arteries with itself. I also just found out that some South African mistletoes – like Viscum minimum – don’t even go as far as to make a little bush. They don’t photosynthesize to any noticeable extent, living almost entirely inside their Euphorba succulent host, bursting out only to flower and set fruit.

Tiny Visicum minimum plant growths, barely noticeable on the surface of a succulent, like plant acne. Plantcne?

By Frank Vincentz (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

Look at those tiny Viscum minimum plant growths, barely noticeable on the surface of a succulent, like plant acne. Plantcne? So cute, yet so creepy. Here’s the flowers:

Tiny Viscum minimum flowers.

By Frank Vincentz (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

Like Alien chestbursters, but permanently attached. And cute.

Have a safari in your own neighborhood this Winter. Look for mistletoe bushes. Notice birds – we’ve got different birds staying here in Winter, compared to Summer. Listen for Great Horned Owls staking out a territory. Even in Winter, nature never sleeps, and there’s wonders all around you, if you just keep aware of them. Including the weird tree-leeches known as mistletoe.

That Actually Happened – John Adams and Benjamin Franklin Slumber Party

It’s kind of adorable. (And a nice contrast to some of the grisly things that have been featured in this series so far.) The nutshell version is that one time, in the middle of a diplomatic mission to talk to Lord Howe during the Revolutionary War, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams ended up sharing a tiny bed in a tiny room in a tiny inn together, and argued about whether night air makes you sick. Of course this ends with a massive scientific lecture by Benjamin Franklin while John Adams falls asleep from sheer boredom. We know this actually happened, because John Adams kept a diary. Read the entry here. It’s an absolute treasure trove of historical details that might otherwise be skipped over. I bet you didn’t even know that there was this (failed, obviously) attempt to broker peace in the middle of the Revolution. I’ll go over some choice passages:

Monday September 9, 1776.
Resolved, that in all Continental Commissions, and other Instruments where heretofore the Words, “United Colonies,” have been used, the Stile be altered for the future to the United States.
Dang, guys, this is when they named the United States. It takes them a few months to get to it, actually, from the Declaration of Independence in July. There’s a definite sense that this new country and government thing is literally being made up as they go along.

On this day, Mr. Franklin, Mr. Edward Rutledge and Mr. John Adams proceeded on their Journey to Lord Howe on Staten Island, the two former in Chairs and the last on Horseback; the first night We lodged at an Inn, in New Brunswick.
By “Chairs” he means sedan chairs like this one:

Lady in a sedan chair, with two porters lifting the chair.

This is a much later sedan chair, and it’s from Turkey, but litters just like this one were very popular forms of transportation in the 1700s. When it’s set on the ground on its feet, the passenger gets in and out through the door in front. It was easier to get through narrow streets in an urban environment, and it was more comfortable if you didn’t want to be jostled around in a carriage, or didn’t feel well enough to ride a horse or walk.

Since John Adams is on a horse, and the other two are in sedan chairs, this gives us even more information. They’re traveling far enough that you would ride rather than walk, and obviously more than one day’s journey away, if they had to stay in an inn. John Adams is feeling fine, because he’s riding a horse. Maybe since they’re in sedan chairs, Benjamin Franklin and Edward Rutledge are both unwell, and indeed, Benjamin Franklin was known to have gout in addition to the fact that he was about seventy at the time. (Interesting aside about sedan chairs: although the sedan chair is almost extinct in the United States, this is not the case in other places, for example some versions of traditional Chinese weddings practically require one, leading to wedding sedan chair rental companies.) We can ALSO infer that there’s more than just these three people on this diplomatic mission, since somebody else has to carry the sedan chairs, at least.

On the Road and at all the public Houses, We saw such Numbers of Officers and Soldiers, straggling and loytering, as gave me at least, but a poor Opinion of the Discipline of our forces and excited as much indignation as anxiety.
So, the Continental Army is in horrible shape, in terms of actually staying an army. Yikes.

The Taverns were so full We could with difficulty obtain Entertainment. At Brunswick, but one bed could be procured for Dr. Franklin and me, in a Chamber little larger than the bed, without a Chimney and with only one small Window.
Not even a fireplace. I hope the bedcover was warm, at least.

Portrait of a frowzy looking John Adams.

John Adams. I wanted to go with lesser-known images for this one. You already know these people from the (idealized) portraits on the money.

The Window was open, and I, who was an invalid and afraid of the Air in the night blowing upon me, shut it close. Oh! says Franklin dont shut the Window. We shall be suffocated. I answered I was afraid of the Evening Air.
Huh. So, Adams isn’t feeling so good, either. This is one thing you learn when you get into history in depth: everybody was sick all the time, and health was an absolute obsession. This fear of the “Evening Air” is about the Miasma Theory of disease, which was a medical belief that sickness was caused by bad air, especially air at night. (We have a fossil of this in the name for the disease malaria – mal aire, bad air.) Note that neither Adams nor Franklin feel the need to explain any of this or point out that bad air makes you sick, and that the ensuing epic lecture is about what kind of bad air makes you sick, since everybody is certain that it’s true. Bacteria and viruses haven’t been discovered yet.

Portrait of Benjamin Franklin, in 1777.

Benjamin Franklin just one year after the events of the entry, in 1777.

Dr. Franklin replied, the Air within this Chamber will soon be, and indeed is now worse than that without Doors: come! open the Window and come to bed, and I will convince you: I believe you are not acquainted with my Theory of Colds. Opening the Window and leaping into Bed, I said I had read his Letters to Dr. Cooper in which he had advanced, that Nobody ever got cold by going into a cold Church, or any other cold Air: but the Theory was so little consistent with my experience, that I thought it a Paradox: However I had so much curiosity to hear his reasons, that I would run the risque of a cold. The Doctor then began an harrangue, upon Air and cold and Respiration and Perspiration, with which I was so much amused that I soon fell asleep, and left him and his Philosophy together: but I believe they were equally sound and insensible, within a few minutes after me, for the last Words I heard were pronounced as if he was more than half asleep….
Awwwwww. That’s downright adorable. As you can tell, two centuries ago in the just-barely-a-thing-that-day United States, snuggly sleeping arrangements between adults were commonplace, especially if you’re squished into a small room with one bed and a super-enthusiastic scientist. Franklin getting cranked up about Night Air is also a reminder that he was rockstar-famous before the revolution due to his experiments with electricity and involvement in the scientific community. Franklin also wrote an academic essay about farting.

Figures for the patent for the Franklin Stove.

“Bad Air” aside, you do have to know a thing or two about ventilation to improve the wood burning stove. Above: figures for the patent for the Franklin Stove.


It’s worth it to read the whole diary entry, which features more discussion of Evening Air and the common cold, as well as an incredibly polite hostage situation:
There were a few Circumstances which appear neither in the Journals of Congress nor in my Letters, which may be thought by some worth preserving. Lord How had sent over an Officer as an Hostage for our Security. I said to Dr. Franklin, it would be childish in Us to depend upon such a Pledge and insisted on taking him over with Us, and keeping our Surety on the same side of the Water with Us. My Colleagues exulted in the Proposition and agreed to it instantly. We told the Officer, if he held himself under our direction he must go back with Us. He bowed Assent, and We all embarked in his Lordships Barge. As We approached the Shore his Lordship, observing Us, came down to the Waters Edge to receive Us, and looking at the Officer, he said, Gentlemen, you make me a very high Compliment, and you may depend upon it, I will consider it as the most sacred of Things. 
This is what it looks like when all sides of a dispute completely agree on what the rules of conflict are (even a full-on war). No misunderstandings, no messy misinterpretations (NSA classic example linkage!). Adams, Franklin, and Rutledge didn’t bring the hostage along with them because they thought that they were safe, instead, they thought that Howe might be ruthless enough to not honor the agreement anyway (“it would be childish in Us to depend on such a Pledge”), and that they had a chance to make a very generous gesture of trusting Howe without actually placing trust in him by bringing the hostage back to him rather than leaving the hostage at camp. It was also really gutsy to go through with the meeting anyway. But, Howe saw that them bringing the hostage back was very generous decision, and decided to honor it by not arresting them after the conference failed. (“Gentlemen, you make me a very high Compliment, and you may depend upon it“)  It all looks very gracious on the surface, but by everyone making such a show of this graciousness and generosity and honor, it safeguards norms of behavior that make it possible to get business and diplomacy done.

That’s what etiquette does, actually. The purpose of etiquette is to give people a common framework around which to structure their interactions so that they can be sure that their own relationships and interests are protected, and they know exactly where they stand with each other.

Amazing Mules

Mules are pretty amazing. In this very special LFPL Teen Blog post, we’ll explore key points of history and biology – as well as thorny ethical issues – all at the same time through the lens of these famous hybrid equines. (Language warning? Or something. It’s all clean in context, but we do need to talk extensively about donkeys, especially jacks.)

The Definition of a Species

A species is all of the living things that can make babies together, whose babies can also make babies without any problems like diminished fertility. That’s it. Easy, actually. That’s why a gray wolf and a toy poodle are members of the same species, even though they look so different. Wolfdogs are a thing, and absolutely can go on to have lots of puppies. Like so:

wolfdog with puppies.

By Venpia (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Chinstrap Penguins (for example) and cabbages are not members of the same species, because they can’t make babies. That’s also why Chinstrap penguins are not the same species as Little Blue Penguins. Almost always, two species can’t interbreed at all, let alone produce living offspring. But sometimes, two species are close enough that they can produce healthy babies together, but those babies have trouble reproducing.

This brings us to equines (the horse family) and mules.

 

Introducing Mules

There are lots of equine hybrids, actually. You may have heard of mules, hinnies, and even zorses, but one of my favorite equine hybrids is the otherwise fairly rare and obscure zebroid stallion zebra X jenny donkey hybrid, called either a zedonk, a zebronky, a zonkey, or a zebrass.

a zebrass in tall grass. zebra-like leg stripes, upright mane, roundish ears, but a shaggy gray body coat.

By Whitney Carpenter. [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

Majestic! Stripes, upright mane, solid gray body coat, and all of the untamed aggression and cantankerousness of a zebra with a donkey’s thoughtful stubbornness, which is exactly why they’re fairly rare. There’s no demand for this animal, except as a curiosity. It certainly isn’t going to carry you or your luggage.

Mules, though, were wildly popular, and continue to be the most commonly bred equine hybrid. They’re reliable to breed, and generally have the best traits of both horses and donkeys. Horses are fast, but tend to panic. Donkeys are strong and sensible, but are usually smaller than horses. A mule (if you choose the parents wisely) can be in the size range of a horse, strong, fast, and sensible. A mule is the offspring of a male donkey, and a female horse. To make all this easier to understand without too much typing, here’s some basic terms!

Horses:

Baby horse – foal

Immature female horse – filly

Immature male horse – colt

Mature female horse – mare

Castrated male horse – gelding

Mature male horse – stallion/horse (We call all horses horses, even though technically it’s just the stallions that are horse horses. Just like we call all cows cows, even though it refers to specifically female cows, which is kind of redundant. Similarly to dogs: only male dogs are dog dogs. I’ll probably do a whole post on the English language and all our weird animal terms. Also, different breeds take different amounts of time to grow up, so the exact years in which a horse is a filly vs a mare or colt vs stallion can change, depending on the breed. Just like humans take different amounts of time to hit puberty or something. Some breeds are just late bloomers, or early ones, depending.)

 

Donkeys / Asses:

Baby donkey – foal

Female donkey – jennet / jenny

Male donkey – jack

Castrated male donkey – john / gelding

 

To get a mule, breed a mare to a jack. That’s much easier to say.

 

Mules

Baby mule – foal

Female mule – molly

Intact male mule (super rare – why put up with behavior issues if they’re sterile anyway?) – horse mule

Castrated male mule – john mule

 

The trick with mules is that most jacks are tiny, since most donkeys are also tiny. This is about average size for a regular donkey:

A woman walking next to a donkey, which stands maybe chest high at the shoulder.

By Rod Waddington from Kergunyah, Australia (Oromo Woman, Ethiopia) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

What if you want a big strong mule? There are also breeds of donkey that exist just for making mules with specific traits, like size, such as American Mammoth Jackstock (and, in the case of the Poitou Mule, a specialized breed of horse, too.) This is where stuff gets WEIRD.

 

The Famous Poitou Mule

In France over the 18th and 19th Centuries, mules were so important to agriculture that an entire breed of horse AND an entire breed of donkey were developed purely so that farmers could get large, strong mules to pull their farm equipment.

This is a Poitou Horse, or a Poitevin Mulassier (Poitou Mule-maker):

A poitou horse stallion.

By Poitou (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

This one’s even a horse horse. A stallion. His literal only reason to exist is to look pretty at horse shows and produce mares who will produce mules. Historically, anything else a Poitou Horse could do (especially a horse horse), like pull carts or even provide meat, was just a nice bonus. This animal is effectively a living gene bank.

There’s also the Poitou Donkey, a giant-sized breed with a long shaggy coat. This is a jennet and her foal at a show:

A shaggy mother poitou donkey, and her baby in a parking lot at a show.

The foal is nearly as big as an adult regular-size donkey.

Again, since the jacks are the ones that people use to make mules, jennet Poitou donkeys are also living gene banks, like stallion Poitou horses.

So, that’s two breeds (each from a different species) of equine, each selected over time just for making mules. When you do breed a Poitou donkey jack to a Poitou horse mare, you get a gorgeous, versatile Poitou Mule:

a Poitou mule wearing a pack harness at a show.

By Eponimm (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

They’re beautiful, really. You can ride them:

A Poitou mule under saddle at a show.

By Eponimm (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

You can drive them:

A pair of Poitou mules pulling a cart.

By Eponimm (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

They’re very photogenic:

Closeup of the face of a Poitou Mule.

By Eponimm (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Tragically, though, farmers have moved on to tractors, rather than mules. Now, heavy breeds of horse and donkey are generally much less popular than they were in the past, and mules along with them. The Poitou mule exemplifies this trend: as breeders strive to redefine what their donkeys and horses can do, all three breeds – the Poitou Mule, the Poitou Donkey, and the Poitou Horse – are very rare. All that has to happen for mules to stop existing is for people to quit breeding them: their genetic bank exists not in the population of mules, since those don’t breed, but in the population of horse and donkeys. Since DNA degrades over time, the best way to keep genes available is to keep the population that carries them going. But, even if you could straight resurrect members of extinct species Jurassic Park -style, in the end, that just sets up another pile of problems, and maybe not the kind of ethical dilemmas you might anticipate…

 

The Ballad of Idaho Gem / Idaho Star / Utah Pioneer

The setup: cutting-edge science, a wealthy entrepreneur who will “spare no expense” in pursuit of his passion, and a potentially lucrative payoff. This story isn’t a novel or a movie about what could happen with cloning technology. It’s about what did happen, over a decade ago, with the first batch of cloned equines.

Don Jacklin, the President of the American Mule Racing Association, wanted a way to reproduce his best racing mule. Since mules are sterile, this meant enlisting the aid of a crack team of equine reproduction scientists and veterinarians, and cloning his champion mule. Idaho Gem, Idaho Star, and Utah Pioneer were the genetically identical results of this successful quest to clone the first equine. Technically, due to being born first, Idaho Gem was the official first equine clone.

So, as clones of a champion racing mule, did the three duplicates go on to dominate the sport? Interestingly, no. Idaho Star apparently never was that into running, Utah Pioneer remains an educational exhibit entertaining schoolkids, and Idaho Gem – although good at racing – didn’t live up to Jacklin’s expectations as a champion. He eventually retrained for gymkhana.

I guess it makes sense, really, that clones of the original aren’t like the original exactly. After all, the three cloned mules are effectively identical triplets of each other, and identical siblings can be very different from each other in all sorts of ways, including personality.

Genetics literally isn’t everything, and it certainly isn’t destiny.