The Museum of Osteology, Oklahoma City

Interior of the Museum of Osteology (my photo)

The Museum of Osteology in Oklahoma City is a small private museum devoted to bones and skeletons. Specimens in the museum (over 300 skeletons and 400 skulls) were collected by Jay Villemarette, a skeleton fanatic who appears to have found his niche in life during childhood. Villemarette also owns the company Skulls Unlimited, which is located next door to the museum, and which provides much of the material in the museum gift shop.

Left: human skull with bullet wound; right: Western Diamondback Rattlesnake – photos by Michael Alumbaugh (cropped)

Specimens in the Museum of Osteology are displayed well (see photos above and below), and I found the museum interesting. Tripadvisor also rates the museum highly. For admission prices and further information, see the museum website.

Left: Raccoon; centre: Northern Seahorse; right: Broad-footed mole – photos by Michael Alumbaugh

Rattus norvegicus: the lab rat

The albino Rattus norvegicus used in laboratories (photo above by Sarah Fleming) goes back to the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia. Physiologist Henry H. Donaldson took four pairs of albino rat with him when he joined the Institute in 1906, and work there by Donaldson, Helen Dean King, and others resulted in the development of a standardised “Wistar rat.”

In his 480-page tome The Rat: Data and reference tables for the albino rat (Mus norvegius albinus) and the Norway rat (Mus norvegius) of 1915 (revised in 1924), Donaldson notes: “In enumerating the qualifications of the rat as a laboratory animal, and in pointing out some of its similarities to man, it is not intended to convey the notion that the rat is a bewitched prince or that man is an overgrown rat, but merely to emphasize the accepted view that the similarities between mammals having the same food habits tend to be close, and that in some instances at least, by the use of equivalent ages, the results obtained with one form can be very precisely transferred to the other.

What Donaldson means by the latter point is: “If the life span of three years in the rat is taken as equivalent to 90 years in man, it is found that the growth changes in the nervous system occur within the same fraction of the life span (i.e., at the equivalent ages) in the two forms.

Since Rattus norvegicus has adapted to live with people (e.g. in tunnels under our cities), it makes for a perfect laboratory animal. Running rats through mazes of varying kinds has become an established way of studying learning, as in this video from the San Diego News Network:

Chromatic polynomials

Network colouring is an fascinating branch of mathematics, originally motivated by the four colour map theorem (first conjectured in 1852, but proved only in 1976). Network colouring has applications to register allocation in computers.

For each network there is a chromatic polynomial which gives the number of ways in which the network can be coloured with x colours (subject to the restriction that directly linked nodes have different colours). For example, this linear network can be coloured in two ways using x = 2 colours:

The corresponding chromatic polynomial is x (x − 1)3, which is plotted below. Zeros at x = 0 and x = 1 indicate that at least 2 colours are required.

For the Petersen network below, the chromatic polynomial is:

x (x − 1) (x − 2) (x7 − 12 x6 + 67 x5 − 230 x4 + 529 x3 − 814 x2 + 775 x − 352)

This polynomial has zeros at 0, 1, 2, and 2.2051, and is plotted below:

Chromatic polynomials provide an interesting link between elementary and advanced mathematics, as well as an interesting case study of network algorithms.

Circulation: William Harvey’s Revolutionary Idea (a review)

Circulation by Thomas Wright

I recently read Circulation: William Harvey’s Revolutionary Idea by Thomas Wright. This interesting biography of William Harvey concentrates on his discovery of the circulation of the blood through the body, and his publication of Exercitatio Anatomica de Motu Cordis et Sanguinis in Animalibus in 1628. The historical and social context of Harvey’s work is described particularly well.

William Harvey

Harvey’s idea had the potential to revolutionise medicine, doing for biology what Galileo had done for astronomy. Sadly, although Harvey’s work undermined the basis for pointless treatments like bloodletting, the respect accorded to ancient Greek medicine kept such treatments alive for centuries after they should have ceased.

An illustration from Harvey’s book

This well-written book is well worth reading, and of interest to students of science, history, and medicine (although the descriptions of live dogs being dissected are a little disconcerting). It won the 2012 Wellcome Trust Book Prize.

Circulation by Thomas Wright: 3.5 stars

Science in stained glass

These four wonderful stained-glass windows at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge commemorate Francis Crick (and the structure of DNA), neurophysiologist C.S. Sherrington (and a neuron), statistician Ronald Fisher (and a Latin square), and logician John Venn (and a Venn diagram). All photos are by Wikipedia user “Schutz.”


Mirages (photos above and below by TheBrockenInaGlory) come in two varieties – inferior (like the one above) and superior. Inferior mirages are quite common, often showing an image of the sky that gives the illusion of a lake or pool of water. Inferior mirages result from refraction by hot air near the ground.

Superior mirages (like the one below) result from refraction by cold air near the ground, and are more commonly seen in the Arctic and Antarctic. Complex superior mirages (or Fata Morgana) can contain multiple images of the original object, often distorted, and both inverted and right side up.

The complex superior mirages seen near the poles are mentioned in H. P. Lovecraft’s classic horror novel At the Mountains of Madness:

Our early flights were disappointing … though they afforded us some magnificent examples of the richly fantastic and deceptive mirages of the polar regions, of which our sea voyage had given us some brief foretastes. Distant mountains floated in the sky as enchanted cities, and often the whole white world would dissolve into a gold, silver, and scarlet land of Dunsanian dreams and adventurous expectancy under the magic of the low midnight sun. … I had seen dozens of polar mirages during the preceding weeks, some of them quite as uncanny and fantastically vivid as the present sample; but this one had a wholly novel and obscure quality of menacing symbolism, and I shuddered as the seething labyrinth of fabulous walls and towers and minarets loomed out of the troubled ice-vapours above our heads.

The effect was that of a Cyclopean city of no architecture known to man or to human imagination, with vast aggregations of night-black masonry embodying monstrous perversions of geometrical laws and attaining the most grotesque extremes of sinister bizarrerie. There were truncated cones, sometimes terraced or fluted, surmounted by tall cylindrical shafts here and there bulbously enlarged and often capped with tiers of thinnish scalloped discs; and strange, beetling, table-like constructions suggesting piles of multitudinous rectangular slabs or circular plates or five-pointed stars with each one overlapping the one beneath. There were composite cones and pyramids either alone or surmounting cylinders or cubes or flatter truncated cones and pyramids, and occasional needle-like spires in curious clusters of five. All of these febrile structures seemed knit together by tubular bridges crossing from one to the other at various dizzy heights, and the implied scale of the whole was terrifying and oppressive in its sheer giganticism. The general type of mirage was not unlike some of the wilder forms observed and drawn by the Arctic whaler Scoresby in 1820; but … we all seemed to find in it a taint of latent malignity and infinitely evil portent. … I was glad when the mirage began to break up, though in the process the various nightmare turrets and cones assumed distorted temporary forms of even vaster hideousness.