Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Diatom Diatribe cont.

The flood of inquiries I have received about my diatom mural has been astonishing! Who would have thought that so many out there share my love for these astonishing microscopic lifeforms. But what’s not to love? Diatoms, like my other all-time favourite, slime mould, are neither fish nor fowl. Which is to say that they are neither plants nor animals, and are not bacteria or fungi either.

In fact they are one-celled protists which, like plants, contain chlorophyll but, uniquely, diatoms are encased in an asymmetric silica shell that is like a shoebox with a bottom and a slightly larger top.

Only infinitely more attractive and multimorphic.

Diatoms are, in fact, a major group of eukaryotic algae, and are one of the most common types of phytoplankton. Most diatoms are unicellular, although some form chains or simple colonies. Some even move around under their own power, although others rely on the kindness of the currents to keep them suspended where they’ll thrive. Not only are there more than 100000 species of the cute little critters, they are found everywhere that there’s water including on and in soil. Of course the average person’s closest noticable contact with them live is as the slippery brown stuff on rocks in rivers, but some lucky folk get to experience their efflorescent ‘red tides’. Dead they have a thousand and one uses around the home including making nail polish shiny. They make superior dust of course. They also have a fossil record stretching back to at least the Jurassic. Only slightly longer than my own, I’d like to point out.

Anyway, I could go on and on about them – especially since pointy-headed science types are now looking at using them as components of nano-machines, but it was the mural and diatoms use in cultural activities that have excited most of my correspondents.

I wish that I could claim to have invented diatom art instead of simply being its (potentially) greatest exponent, but unfortunately other’s achievements in the area are too well known. As everyone knows, diatom art has been HUGE since Victorian times, when well-brought up young ladies would produce kaleidoscopic slide mounts to delight and amuse their friends and family. Indeed, I myself learned the art from one such microscopic enthusiast. MoD, naturally, has a collection of these Victorian mounts – although it is small, I can safely claim it as unparalleled by any other held by a public institution. The example above provides an indication of the sheer visual excitement of these specimens.

Additionally, we have a small collection of note-worthy but unattributed pictorial mounts. This, of course, is housed near our collection of pictures constructed from butterfly wing scales.

I have to fly – there’s been a reported sighting of El Cacaracha Libre lurking near the Chambre Ardente! (Inky swears he’s dealt with the putative revolutionary, but frankly, I have my doubts). But when I’ll be back, and then I’ll show you around a few modern diatomic creations.

Diatom Art >
Nature’s Blueprint: Mimicking Nature's cleverest designs >
"Scientists Learning To Create Nanomaterials Based On Micro-Algae Patterns"
in Spacemart >
Becker's Diatom Index >
Montana Diatoms (mounted arrangements showing the effect of imaging under different conditions -- recommended! Also the home of the micromanipulator) >

PS A note to Norman Ingram Hendey: next time you want to donate a large number of diatoms to somewhere, I would much prefer it if you came straight to MoD rather than going to obscure institutions such as the Natural History Museum in London. Just because you're dead at 101 is no excuse! A forensic scientist of your calibre SHOULD have known better!



Blogger fifi said...

oh, these are beeeutiful things, I think they make Haeckel pictures seem so dusty in comparison...

love them, thank you, a very nice visit to the museum.

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I have not known that the Diatoms are producers within the food chain, I think that it is so interesting because living diatoms are often found clinging in great numbers to filamentous algae.

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