A Poem About Biological Systematics

Biological systematics is, let’s be honest… not a very sexy field of biology for most people. There is certainly something almost noble in the century-long quest to discover and classify all life on Earth and to unravel the deep and entangled thickets of the tree of life, to understand the literal origins of species. Not many scientific disciplines, I think, can boast such an inherent adventurousness. But that is all buried under layers of technical hemming and hawing about methods of tree construction, character validity, and taxonomic interpretation, all expressed in a jargon peculiar the the field, even within biology. So it’s not often that one sees systematics appear in the writings of non-scientists. But I did recently stumble on a poem, The Rose Family, by Robert Frost (1928):

The rose is a rose,
And was always a rose.
But the theory now goes
That the apple’s a rose,
And the pear is, and so’s
The plum, I suppose.
The dear only knows
What will next prove a rose.
You, of course, are a rose —
But were always a rose.

The poem lightly pokes fun at the seemingly pinheaded idea of apples, pears, and plums being classified in the same family, Rosaceae as regular roses. I’m sure Frost would have loved to know that blackberries and strawberries are in the Rosaceae as well; in fact, we now know that these two groups are even closer relatives of roses than Frost’s fruit trees.

A quince tree (Cydonia oblonga); or, as we now know, a very tasty rose. From Wikipedia.

Of course, the scientific foundation on which this poem rests is logically shaky (rose relatives are emphatically not roses, the same way your cousin, your relative, is not you) but the point is to explain one’s love as constant and steadfast in its devotion even as others’ attentions, tastes, and attitudes wander unpredictably over time. The use of the romantic connotation of flowers, in particular of the rose as opposed to less well-regarded blossoms, deepens the poem’s intentions. It’s a quintessential Frost poem: short, intense, and sweet, but executed with a light touch, like the fragrance of a rose.


(Featured image: An assortment of what most would call hawthorn (Crataegus), but are they actually roses?? From Wikipedia)


My First Animation

I spent a couple spare hours tonight fiddling with Animation Desk, a free basic drawing/animation app I found in the Microsoft app store. It’s really quite addictive, being flexible and easy to use even for those of us who have no art skills. I was so amused with my first effort that I just had to post it here:

(There are 12 frames in this video playing at 24 frames/second, making the whole thing only half a second long; if you play the video on Youtube you can change the settings in the lower right corner of the video to play at slower speed, or right click on the video to loop.)

I really got into animated television shows with Avatar: The Last Airbender in freshman year of college, and from there progressed onto anime as well as American-produced series. Animation has a reputation (in the U.S. at least) of being “for kids”, which often precludes them from being taken seriously by critics as works of art with messages as substantive as their live-action counterparts. If anything, one great advantage of animation is its enormous potential to transcend what is “real”, freeing an artist to exaggerate action, expressiveness, and dialogue as well as create worlds in which viewers can suspend all disbelief. Imagine Kill la Kill, a wild show with transforming school uniforms that examines how our clothes shape our identities and roles, without its schizophrenic transformation sequences and brilliant colors. Or what about The Venture Bros., a self-aware parody of popular science fiction and fantasy tropes, with its elaborate blunders and baroque machinations orchestrated not by its zany animated cast, but by live actors? And even for shows like Spongebob Squarepants, animation facilitates comedy by exaggerating facial expressions, distorting physics, and setting up scenarios whose impossibility in our world renders them all the more entertaining.

And lastly, animation is democratic. A complete, coherent episode may take skilled staff months to complete, but even so, any schmuck can, with a bit of time, stitch together a sequence of doodles into moving, living artwork. Hence this clip: 12 frames of a stick figure flying around with explosions, nothing compared to a complete episode or even a scene, but something I’m kind of proud of nonetheless.