Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Curiosity & the company of Heron-Allen

Edward Heron-Allen (b. London, 17 November 1861, d. 1943) is - or was - a fascinating man: a true polymath. His expertise ranged from violin-making to Cheiriosophy (another term for palmistry), linguistics to archeology, marine zoology to meteorology, esoteric studies to the successful cultivation of - who would have guessed - asparagus! He wrote extensively on all these subjects, contributing significantly, even then, to our current understanding re; foraminifera (the same complex uni-cellular aquatic organisms that Sam Bowser has been studying for the past twenty-five years. Click here to read a recent interview in Nature magazine.). 
When Heron-Allen wasn't writing academic papers, investigating the paranormal or lecturing on the intricacies of violin-making, he was studying Persian. He translated the Persian classic Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam into English, and too, The Lament of Baba Tahir (from its original, very obscure dialect, Luri). As if that wasn't more than enough to keep one man busy for a lifetime, Edward Heron-Allen adopted a pseudonym, Christopher Blayre, and set about becoming a prodigious writer of short stories (science fiction, the supernatural and quasi-erotica). In his ordinary everyday life, he was a lawyer, husband and father to two children. 
The mind boggles.     
As a scribe for The Heron-Allen Society has suggested, "If a serious biography of Heron-Allen were to be undertaken it would have to be the work of various hands. It is highly unlikely that any one biographer could have an informed appreciation of Heron-Allen's many and varied interests..."  
In his book Practical Cheiriosophy, Heron-Allen wrote, 

"If trouble can leave its marks upon the face, as Byron says, -
'The intersected lines of thought, -
Those furrows which the burning share
Of sorrow ploughs untimely there;
Scars of the lacerated mind,
Which the soul's war doth leave behind,'-
why should not the same effect be produced upon the hands, which are so much more sensitive than the face?"

Byron must have been in melancholic mood when he wrote that stanza. I agree with Heron-Allen, though, about our hands. I'm not sure I'd go as far as saying they're even 'more sensitive than the face' but I do think that between them, our hands and face hold all our stories.   
I'm not really sure where I'm going with all this - there are many threads to this particular meander: Heron-Allen (and his myriad research subjects) has fascinated me for a wee while now: I've been following him around ever since I was first introduced to him in Explorers Cove three and a bit years ago. So, yes, there's that connection. And then there's the fact that his primary scientific preoccupation was foraminiferology - it's this that drove the hook right in. As I mentioned when writing from Antarctica, I'm currently working on various collaborative ArtScience projects that have at their core, foraminifera, so Heron-Allen makes logical, inspiring company. 
Aside from all this, I'm enjoying 'dipping my feet into melt-water' and taking time to muse a little about 'curiosity' and where it leads us; what it is about something that ensures it will first capture, then hold, our attention? And what it is that defines a moment/event/encounter (often very early in the piece) as significant so that we're then prompted to move towards or away from it; to say yes, no, or not now, thank you?
Here's a pic of one of my favourite forams called Astrammina triangularis: I'm forever enthusing to Sam that this micro-organism is the perfect metaphor for our human individuation. 
Photograph: Samuel Bowser
This tiny sediment-encrusted creature starts out life as a triangle and becomes progressively more complex as it grows older: entirely responsible for the construction and shape of the protective shell it lives within, it sends pseudopods ('sticky feelers') out into the environment, selects particles of sediment (to very precise sizes) for the purpose of building its shell, then creates an adhesive with which to bind these particles together. The ingredients that make up this 'glue' have so far left scientists confounded. In situ on the Antarctic ocean floor, it's shown itself to be waterproof and incredibly durable (these creatures are living fossils, having survived in essentially the same form for some 650 million years - i.e so long as there are healthy foraminiferan around, there's no expiry date on this adhesive). The glue also demonstrates remarkable tensile strength. And yet, the minute a sample is taken into a lab situation, it proves impossible to stabilize and literally gums up the equipment required to analyze it. 
Anyway, to continue with the metaphor... as it matures, the A. triangularis grows additional apices, gradually extending its shape from a triangle into a square, from a square into a pentagon, from a pentagon into a hexagon, heptagon, octagon, nonagon and so on... and so on... The most complex triangularis found in Antarctica waters so far is twelve-sided.  
Here's a reflected light micrograph image showing a community of A. triangularis specimens of varying ages and complexity - there can be no denying these organisms are sophisticated little masons.
Plate I from Bowser et al. (2002) Journal of Foraminiferal Research 32:365
This week past, I went for two late afternoon walks along St. Clair beach, here in Dunedin. Each time, I 'happened upon' a bizarrely triangularis-like form, only instead of being constructed by single-celled creatures, these were bits of construction debris tumbled and shaped by the sea into objects I could pick up and appreciate. 
Believe it or not, it was these two small, beat-up (but beautiful, in-their-rough-and-ready-way) forms that unexpectedly gave rise to all these associations --- how often is this not the way with extraordinary ordinary things? 


  1. Hi Claire, Wow that is mind blowing stuff.
    The rocks you picked up are very familiar to me, however I was ignorant of the associations you have described. The world is truly a wondrous place. You have the gift of being awake to the wonder, and of then being able to pass on to others the delight. Thank you.
    Bless you! And happy new year wishes to you too.

  2. Hi Kay - I've just been browsing your blog, enjoying its many delights... You are right, the world truly is a wondrous place - and, too, an ever-turning paradox. How often do we find there's gold buried in the lead? Blessing to you and your year - L, C X