Saturday, May 24, 2008

Happy 301st, Linnaeus!

Jennifer May 23 marked the 301st anniversary of the birth of Carl Linnaeus. He studied at Uppsala University and was also a professor here. He is the Swedish biologist who invented the field of biological-based taxonomy, as it is practiced today. The reverence for him here is somewhat astonishing. Last year, for his 300th birthday, there were all kinds of exhibits and excursions and art installations and websites dedicated to him.1

Meanwhile, though, it was Linneaus' birthday and so there were things to do in celebration of this fact. When I arrived at Stora Torget yesterday morning, it was to find that a small fountain had been installed, and sod and purple pansies had been laid down so as to appear as if it were water flowing from the fountain. It was really very well done, quite pretty, and they had even built little wooden bridges and stone footpaths across it, and had put in some nice comfortable boulders to sit on. People seemed to like it: children ran back and forth across the bridges, and a couple of fashionable young women were seen giggling as they carefully teetered their way across one of the stone paths in high heels (they could easily have walked around it, but they clearly preferred the challenge). The fountain itself had several informational panels about my department, and I was gratified to see my advisor and my soccer team mentioned on the same panel.2

When I got to work, the following email was waiting for me explaining the whole thing. I cannot improve on the original so I quote it here:

The seven world leading research projects, according to the evaluation Quality and Renewal from 2007, are today presented on a "Well of Knowledge" centrally placed in Uppsala.

The Well of Knowledge is an octagonal fountain placed on Svartbäcksgatan's entrance to Stora Torget. From the well a river made up of 10 000 blue pansies flows down to the River Fyris.

The flower arrangement is built to the honor of Linnaeus on his birthday the 23d of May. It will be on display until Sunday 25th May.

Today and tomorrow 10 of our researchers will be placed along Drottninggatan 12.00-16.00. There will be a scientific Linnaeus Saloon in Ekocafeet 17.30. Two researchers participate in the Flower Power Show beginning at 19.00.

So yes, that's the Well of Knowledge, the fountain with the biological blurbs. I therefore dub the grass and flowers "The Brook of Enlightenment."

It was also post-doc G.'s birthday, so we had afternoon fika outside, with a cake that G. had made out of butter and chocolate and maybe a tablespoon or two of flour. Thus fortified, we all headed into town to visit post-doc K., who was one of the 10 researchers mentioned above on Drottninggatan. She was presenting a poster of her research on a corner in front of a bar. Other activities associated with the day included flower shows, walks in city parks with nature guides, lectures on biodiversity, and so forth.

K. had originally been chosen to present a poster because her work involves a infectious agent that causes its hosts to switch sexes. Back in February, when these events were being planned, our department had been approached by Uppsala Pride, the local gay and lesbian advocacy group, who wished to combine forces with us for the weekend. This weekend was also their pride celebration, and they saw some relevancy in her work to their cause. Unfortunately their funding fell through, and the planned combined Gay Pride and Happy Birthday Linnaeus parade never came to pass. A major, major disappointment indeed!

1 You may sense a certain lack of enthusiasm for Linneaus in my tone here; the reason is that I have been professionally trained to despise some of his ideas. His classification system is premised on the belief that all living things are immutable and were created simultaneously by a supreme being. This rigid system (which is after all more than two centuries old now) rests uneasily with the biological reality that living thing change, adapt... evolve. I will happily provide details and examples of why the system of Linnaean classification is bad and should no longer be used. I expect an absolute deluge of such requests from you, dear readers! (Can you tell that I've hit upon a pet peeve here?)
2 Here's the connection: The batteries that make your body's cells go are little internal organs called mitochondria, and mitochondria are thought to be descended from a certain type of bacteria that my adviser (and I, now) study. Therefore, any time you watch a soccer game, you are watching mitochondria hard at work. And your own mitochondria are working, perhaps somewhat less vigorously, as you sit in comfort in the stadium or on your couch and watch the game.

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