East Lansing in the NYTimes

by | Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Olivia Judson has a great column in the NYTimes about evolution. Today’s column titled “Stop the mutants” is a thought experiment on how evolution would fare if all mutations were to magically stop. It is an interesting article, and in keeping with her previous writing, it is well written, thoroughly researched and extremely thought provoking.

That said, this blog posting is not about biology but rather about something relatively mundane, a mention of East Lansing, MI in Olivia Judson’s column. East Lansing of course is the home of Michigan State University!

In her article, Judson argues, for reasons that do not concern us here, that plant seeds can often survive for long periods of time (decades and even possibly hundreds of years) if buried in soil. She cites a lotus seed that apparently sprouted and flowered after being buried for 1000 years! Further evidence for this, she continues, comes from the work of someone by the name of William James Beal. She goes on to say that Dr. Beal back in 1879, in East Lansing, Michigan, “buried 20 bottles each containing sandy soil and a mixture of seeds from 21 different species. At regular intervals, a bottle is dug up, and the sand-seed mix is transferred into a shallow tray of soil and watered. Most recently —the 120th year — 26 seeds from three different species sprouted, and several of the plants went on to produce normal seeds in turn. The next bottle is due to be dug up in 2020.”

This reference to East Lansing intrigued me enough that I decided to Google Dr. Beal. The first few links suggested that he was an accomplished scientist who brought a scientific approach towards agricultural research. The Beale agricultural gardens at Michigan State are named after him. You can find out more about him here, here, and here.

The most interesting thing I learned about him, however, has nothing to do with his scientific work. As it turns out, in 1887 (with Professor Rolla Carpenter) Dr. Beal created a neighborhood, called “Collegeville,” close to the campus of Michigan Agricultural College (now Michigan State University). This neighborhood grew and became what we today know as East Lansing!

Is that cool or what?

Topics related to this post: Biology | Evolution | Fun | Science | Worth Reading

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