Monday, July 26, 2021

Cynisca: Badass Horsewoman and the First Female to Compete in the Olympic Games

My admiration for Cynisca knows no bounds.

This Greek princess was born in the early 440's B.C.E to Archidamus II, the King of Sparta. She owned several race horses, enjoyed chariot racing, and -- thanks to her brother Agesilaus II, who encouraged her love of horses at an early age -- was an avid horsewoman.

Birth records are dicey here. Some historians put Cynisca's birth as early as 444, others as late as 440. 

Though women were forbidden from watching the Games, let alone compete in them, there was a loophole with regards to the equestrian events.

Since owners and trainers rarely  handled the horses during the actual competition, there was no rule against women being involved behind-the-scenes, as long as someone else did the actual horse-handling during the races.

So Cynisca got busy. 

She owned a string of race horses and trained them for the *extremely dangerous* 4-horse tethripon chariot races.

Though historians may not agree on her precise birthdate, all recognize that in 396 B.C.E., in her 40's, Cynisca became the first woman to compete in the Olympic games, as both owner and trainer.

And she won!

To prove it wasn't a fluke, four years later, at the next Olympic games, she entered another team and won again.

She may have been forbidden to be present while her horses were racing, and was unable to see their victory, but that didn't stop her from mopping the hippodrome's floor with the competition.

Xenophon, the quintessential Greek horseman, wrote glowingly of her accomplishments (however, he was careful to keep her under the shadow of her elder brother). 

    The base of Cynisca's statue from Olympia.

In Olympia itself stood a statue of the great horsewoman in a chariot pulled by her winning horses. 

Modern archaeologists have discovered the base of this statue, which includes an inscription with Cynisca's name and accomplishments.

So impressed were the Spartans with their princess that upon her passing, they built a hero├Ân, or hero shrine, in her honor. Hero shrines were often used to instill long-lasting civic pride in a noteworthy member of the community. Cynisca was the first woman to have such a shrine built (other shrines were reserved for deceased kings). 

For years after her death, a hero cult of super fans kept her legend alive. Which is only right.

As I said before: BOUNDLESS admiration.

Saturday, July 17, 2021

The Surprising, Stunning Seaweed Scrapbooks of Victorian Ladies


You wouldn't think such a humble, slimy, smelly thing would appeal to Victorian sensibilities. But you would be wrong. 

According to conventional wisdom at the time, Queen Victoria kept a scrapbook of various seaweeds and algae when she was small. Since nothing says "influencer" quite like being royalty, soon the entire nation had adopted her hobby.

Seaweed scrapbooking had great appeal -- especially to women -- for several reasons. 

In addition to giving them something in common with their beloved queen, padding about the seashore afforded one of the few socially acceptable ways to be in public with ::gasp:: bare feet and bare ankles.

Detail of A.B. Hervey's lovely "Sea Mosses" book, c. 1881.
It also enabled them to indulge their astounding creativity in a way that did not involve sewing or needlework. Seaweed scrapbooking was not a mere matter of snagging a bit of algae and splatting it down on paper. Hardly! In order to be preserved, every specimen was carefully collected, washed, arranged, affixed on the page, and pressed for posterity.

The scrapbookers used special tools including needles, forceps, scissors, and tweezers to meticulously arrange every specimen on the page, fanning it out to display it in all its glory.

In 1881, Alpheus Baker Hervey wrote "Sea Mosses: A Collector's Guide and an Introduction to the Study of Marine Algae." 

This booklet contained 281 pages of text and stunningly gorgeous color plates detailing everything the avid collector needed to know to preserve their own specimens on paper, presenting both their delicate structures and their vibrant colors.

Some scrapbooks went far beyond mere seaweed samples. Creative artists used the seaweed as a medium in which to write words, do intricate decorative designs, and even construct images.

In 1848, Eliza A. Jordson fashioned a scrapbook that remains a work of art. The cover includes the words "Sea Weeds" in flowing cursive, spelled out with actual algae. 

In some parts of Jordson's book, seaweed explodes on the page like a beautiful Rorschach test. In at least two pages, she uses it to "paint" tiny still-lifes of houses and trees.

A few years before Jordson's scrapbook, Anna Atkins, a botanist and avid student of the brand new, developing (ha! -- sorry, not sorry) field of photography, created the first book of photographic images ever.

Its subject: British algae.

Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions was painstakingly handwritten and illustrated with beautiful blue-tinted cyanotype photographs. Published in 1843, the book is extremely rare, with fewer than 13 complete copies in existence.

    A page from Anna Atkins' book.

For some reason (perhaps the Queen's interest?), though nineteenth-century women were excluded from most scientific studies, seaweed collecting was allowed, if not actively encouraged. 

Children's author, translator, and naturalist Margaret Gatty became enamored with algae collecting. In 1848, while convalescing at the seaside in Sussex, Gatty was introduced to seaweed collecting, which she described as her "consolation of consolations."

Three years later, she was so enamored with the past time, she coined the word "algologist" to describe herself in the census.

Though Gatty could not afford a microscope to fully explore the algae that fascinated her, she began corresponding with several noted scientists, including William Henry Harvey, the pre-eminent phycologist of the time. She borrowed books and equipment from Harvey and eventually worked alongside him.

 Margaret Gatty, 1809-1873
During the 1850's, Gatty wrote a manuscript discussing ways to simplify the classification of algae. However, the project was never published. Instead, she was commissioned to write and revise the prestigious Atlas of British Seaweeds Drawn from Professor Harvey’s Phycologia Britannica

Gatty suffered from debilitating pain throughout most of her adult life. Most biographers suspect she lived with undiagnosed multiple sclerosis. Though her health deteriorated until she eventually lost the use of her arms and her legs, she continued her studies.

Several species of algae bear her name, including gattya pinella, gattya humilis, and gattya obtusa

Gatty died in 1873. Today, her collection of nearly 9,000 specimens and over 500 plates has a home in the St. Andrews Botanic Garden.

Saturday, July 03, 2021

The Tiny Squid that Pretends It's the Moon

The bobtail squid are tiny little ocean denizens. Some have a mantle as small as half an inch and most are less than 3 inches long -- just the right size for some fish's tasty snack. These tiny things prefer to live in open water with strong currents, so you'll rarely find them in captivity in any but the most specialized of aquariums.

In many ways, these stubby squid are similar to cuttlefish, though they have no cuttlebone (so: not cuttlefish, then) and a rounder mantle (the large blobby part of their body).  Bobtail squid are classified with coleoidea, which includes squid, cuttlefish, and octopus, but this classification is, evidently, a hot-button item currently under debate by those who know far more about these creatures than I.

In addition to all the cool things coleiods have, including eight little legs with suckers on, two tentacles, the ability to swim by jet propulsion, and ink, these little "dumpling squid" have two other nifty attributes. 

Firstly, their entire body is rife with chromatophores, a sort of shape-and-color-shifting freckle dotting the squid. The chromatophores pulse and change producing an ink-spreading or kaleidoscope effect.

And they also have a light organ. Which is about the coolest thing ever. This light organ, located deep inside the blobby head-like mantle, is a gated housing community for a specialized type of bacteria. (Vibrio fischerii, in case you were wondering. Which you probably were. Now you know.) 

Baby bobtails hatch from a clutch of eggs. When the newly-hatched squidlings hit the water, they are immediately surrounded by fischerii, which infiltrate the squid's body, swimming through thick mucous-like gunk, along a highly specialized series of tunnels, into the squid's light organ. There they set up housekeeping and remain in residence throughout the little dumpling's life. It is the start of a beautiful relationship.

V. Fischerii and the bobtail squid have a symbiotic relationship. The light organ fills with a solution high in glucose and amino acids that is perfectly calibrated for the bacteria. 

Photo by Nick Hobson CC BY-SA 3.0
Safely ensconced in the light organ, the bacteria feed on the solution and begin to glow. If they glow, so does their host. The bacteria's bioluminescence affects gene regulation in the squid's light organ, allowing the squid to ability to tinker with the feeder solution to control the light it emits.

You would think that a brightly glowing squidly glob would be akin to an "EAT HERE" neon sign for predators. Ah, but don't be so quick to leap to conclusions, Sparky. 

Essentially, the light from the little squid perfectly simulates moonlight or starlight filtering through the ocean. This counterillumination renders the squid virtually invisible while keeping it from casting a shadow. 

Lit up like a dance party, the tiny bobtail squid puts on a show that mimics the moon. Of course, if the party gets too raucous and the light becomes a bit too bright, the squid can always hit the "emergency ink" button and dim things enough to swim away so it can live to glow another day.