Thursday, December 10, 2015

Waxing lyrical about dung fungi

After a lifetime as a professional scientist, I have to admit that scientific research papers constitute one of the most tedious forms of literature ever devised. The science might be exciting but the words are usually unspeakably dull. That isn't just my opinion .... here's what Nobel laureate James Watson, discoverer of the structure of the DNA molecule, had to say about the matter:

“There is no form of prose more difficult to understand and more tedious to read than the average scientific paper”.

Francis Crick. 1994. The Astonishing Hypothesis

But it wasn't always this way.

This is a line illustration of the dung fungus Pilobolus, taken from this research paper:

W.B. Grove (1884) On the Pilobolidae, with a synopsis of the European species, and a description of a new one. Paper read at a meeting of the Birmingham Natural History and Microscopical society, 17th. April 1883.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but in this case I much prefer a thousand words because I have never read a scientific publication that so vividly conveys the author's sheer delight at a discovery. 

Here is his description of the fungus (bear in mind that in Grove's day scientific papers like this were routinely read aloud to an audience. For fullest effect stand tall, preferably in evening dress, and read it aloud while grasping your lapels or making extravagant gestures. Reading scientific papers was performance art in those days)

"Imagine an oval translucent vase of exquisite outline, carved from a single diamond, not indeed of the finest water, but brought from South African Fields, tinged with a delicate yellow colour. Place beneath this a gracefully curved slender stem, of crystal clear, and where they join let a circlet of the purest gold lie coiled within the tube. Then let a beautiful and limpid light radiate from every part. To enhance its effect, take a piece of blackest jet, shaped into a perfect hemisphere. Polish its surface until it shines like a Venetian mirror, and gently poise this sooty crown over the mouth of the transparent vase. Let glistening strings of orient pearls hang around in graceful festoons, and imagine the whole of this priceless work reduced in size till the total height exceeds not a twentieth of an inch. To complete the contrast, thickly strew these fairy jewels over the half-dried surface of a cake of cow dung, and you have imitated nature as far as your powers allow. To mortals this treasure is known by the name Pilobolus, and the particular species I have pictured is called Pilobolus kleinii."

Click here for a movie of Pilobolus and click here for a photograph and information and you'll see why he found it so beautiful.

W.B.Grove wasn't just a describer of nature - he was an experimentalist, gifted with curiosity too. Here's what he did next.

"Once, when I was examining a tuft with a lens I heard a faint sound proceeding from another tuft six inches off, and at the same instant felt myself struck near the middle of the forehead; the blow was accompanied by a sensation as if a tiny drop of water had fallen there. On looking in  a glass I could see a little black sporange [sic] adhering where it struck, and it remained there for several hours. I immediately took the patch of P.kleinii from which it came (and I should mention that the stems of these specimens were bent almost at a right angle under the influence of the one-sided light beneath which they had grown) into an empty room, where I placed it with the upper portions of the bent stems pointing towards the window. I then laid a number of sheets of white paper around it, in the same horizontal plane; carefully closed the door and left it for an hour. This was just about midday. On returning I found all the sheets covered with a multitude of black dots, which a lens revealed to be the sporangia; each sporangium was surrounded by a brownish stain, produced by the liquid ejected at the same time. On measuring the distances to which the sporangia were thrown I found that a majority lay between three and four feet, but nearly a score lay at a greater distance than four feet, and the farthest that I could find at a distance of 4ft. 10in. When we consider that the utmost height of the individual fungi from which these bomb-shells proceeded did not exceed one tenth of an inch, and that therefore the last mentioned sporangium was thrown to a distance of nearly 600 times the height of the plant which threw it, we can form some idea of the enormous force exerted in this instance. It is as if a man of average height were able to throw his own head to a distance of nearly two thirds of a mile."

As I say, they don't write 'em like that anymore. I rest my case.


  1. That was a very good read, I hate to think how people manage to find anything of interest nowadays.

  2. Less romatically, I thought it was an illustration of a tapeworm

  3. If it meant reading papers of this eloquence, Phil, I reckon there'd be a lot more scientists on the planet! This presupposes, however, that there'd be a supply of scientists able to write to such standards - so, considering the 'youf' of today, the theory probably falls doown there !!

    Have a great Christmas, and best wishes for 2016 - - - Richard