ISSN 1188-603X

No. DI April 1, 2016 Victoria, B.C.
Dr. A. Ceska, 1809 Penshurst, Victoria, BC, Canada V8N 2N6


To put one brick upon another,
Add a third and then a forth,
Leaves no time to wonder whether
What you do has any worth.

But to sit with bricks around you
While the winds of heaven bawl
Weighing what you should or can do
Leaves no doubt of it at all.

Philip Larkin



Sitting at my computer in my comfortable office, handling herbarium specimens that are often well over a hundred years old, I sometimes forget how dangerous it could be to collect these specimens in the 1800's, and how many of these collectors came to bad-and sometimes violent-ends. One such end inspired a story by Rudyard Kipling.

I have a 1925 edition of the works of Rudyard Kipling, given to me by my father a few years ago. He had picked up the books at an estate sale in Syracuse over half a century ago; for years they languished in one of my family's bookcases, unread by anybody. At the age of 9 or 10, inspired by the Disney movie, I finally cracked one of them open to read The Jungle Book (which proved very different from the movie) and The Second Jungle Book, as well as Kipling's Just-So Stories. I've only recently read The Man Who Would Be King, although I saw the 1975 movie with the same title years ago. Both the novella and the movie end with a rather memorable scene of a man's severed head in a bag, a scene loosely based on the true story of Adolphe Schlagintweit.

Kipling probably never met any of the Schlagintweit brothers-Hermann (1826-1882), Adolphe* (1829-1857), and Robert (1833-1885)-- but recently I've been handling some of the plant specimens these Bavarian explorers collected in the 1850's on a scientific expedition to Asia. Well-educated sons of a wealthy Munich ophthalmologist, Hermann and Adolphe moved to Berlin in 1849 shortly after receiving their doctorates in geography and geology, respectively. There they met the famous naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt, then 80 years old and looking for younger men to continue his life's work. Impressed by their previous work in the Alps, he recommended them for an expedition commissioned by the East India Company (and paid for in part, for reasons not clear to me, by the King of Prussia) to complete the Magnetic Survey of India and to collect geological, zoological, botanical, and anthropological specimens. In 1854, taking their younger brother Robert along as an assistant, they set off for India.

This expedition was significant for going into areas where no collectors had been before, and in many cases no westerners of any kind. For three years the brothers traveled both together and separately, with a retinue of assistants and servants, finally writing about their travels in a never-completed series of volumes, Results of a Scientific Mission to India and High Asia. For Adolphe, the botanist of the team, the publication was posthumous.

In the course of my work in the United States National Herbarium I've handled thousands of specimens, but the ones from the Schlagintweit expedition are unlike any others. All are mounted on paper that is both smaller and flimsier than standard herbarium sheets, with collection data printed directly on the sheets. The majority were collected in India (including areas now in Pakistan) with forays into Tibet and Nepal. British India and Tibet were both a bit fuzzy and disputed around the edges, and these uncertain boundaries, the political tensions they engendered, and ongoing territorial skirmishes among the various local tribes were among the obstacles the brothers had to contend with.

The oldest brother, Hermann, was not quite 30 when they went on this expedition, and Adolphe only about 25. The three brothers began the expedition together, traveling sometimes together and sometimes separately over the next two years. In December 1856 the brothers met in Raulpindi (now Rawalpindi, Pakistan) and then parted company one final time, with Hermann and Robert returning to Europe in early 1857. Adolphe stayed behind, traveling instead to Peshaur (now Peshawar, Pakistan), with plans to go to Turkestan and Tibet before returning to Europe. That was the last they saw of him; in 1857 he disappeared and was reportedly murdered but for several years, his fate was uncertain.

The brothers were later able to ascertain that in August 1857, Adolphe made his way to Kashgar, a Tibetan city near the borders of present-day Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. The region was claimed by China but had been recently occupied by an invader from neighboring Kokand, the infamously cruel Khoja Vali Khan (Wali Khan in modern spellings). By all accounts Vali Khan was a brutal leader, whose favorite treatment of his enemies was beheading. Travelers returned with tales of heads stacked in roadside pyramids. Upon his arrival in Kashgar, Adolphe was taken prisoner and for reasons that are still uncertain, but possibly suspecting him of spying for China, Vali Khan ordered Adolphe beheaded.

The demise of Adolphe Schlagintweit was widely reported, first as a rumor with the hope that he might still turn up, and later as fact, in various natural history journals. Hermann and Robert gathered all the first- and second-hand reports that they could find on Adolphe's fate (in particular Adolphe's assistants and servants, who had escaped), and like all of their scientific measurements and observations, published them all in excruciating and often redundant detail in the first and second volumes of their reports. The second volume included some last-minute new information on the recovery of Adolphe's journal and head.

A critical detail the modern stories leave out is that not one but two different heads were produced as allegedly being the remains of Adolphe. The first, reported by T.H. Thornton, personal assistant to the Judicial Commissioner of Punjab, was produced by one of Adolphe's surviving servants but had apparently been obtained some time after the fact and under questionable circumstances. It proved after a detailed examination by two doctors in Lahore to be that of a native, albeit one who had been violently decapitated. The second head had been delivered to Lord William Hay, Deputy Commissioner of Simla, in Srinigar, Kashmir, by a Persian trader along with Adolphe's previously missing final journal. Traveling through Kashgar, and knowing of the story, the trader had been able to locate and purchase Adolphe's journal (saving it from being used as packing paper for snuff) as well as provide additional details about Adolphe's death. He had also traced Adolphe's head to the field of a melon-grower, who had buried it and showed him where to dig. Lord Hay reported this in a letter to the brothers in September 1861 but aware of the previous head, he was somewhat cautious that this was indeed the head of Adolphe Schlagintweit. Lord Hay added with some hint of satisfaction that "The Khója [Vali Khan] was soon after driven out of Káshgar by the Chinese, and is now wandering about a miserable drunkard without a single follower."

It's not clear whether the second head was ever determined to be that of Adolphe. Neither is it clear what happened to either head, but these notorious stories would have been in recent memory when Kipling arrived in British India in the 1880's. His travels included Lahore and Simla, and he may well have met some of the people directly involved. The story apparently resonated with Kipling, who used the delivery of a severed head to a British civil servant in India as a key detail in his 1888 story.

Although the Schlagintweit brothers' reports were deemed "unreadable" by one English reviewer, and the Magnetic Survey of India later fizzled into nothing, their collections remain an important contribution to science. The brothers collected an enormous number of specimens, in addition to hundreds of sketches and watercolors (Hermann in particular was apparently an excellent artist). The collections were sent to Berlin, with the bulk of them later sent to England for distribution. About 900 of the botanical specimens are now housed in the United States National Herbarium.

For a detailed discussion of the Schlagintweit brothers and their mission, see Finkelstein, G. (2000). "Conquerors of The Künlün"? The Schlagintweit Mission to High Asia, 1854-57. History of Science 38(2): 179-218.


From: Oliver Sacks (2015): On the Move: A life. Penguin Random House Canada Limited, Toronto.

[1960:] Having travelled by plane and train, I decided to complete my westward journey by hitchhiking - and almost immediately got conscripted for firefighting. I wrote to my parents:

"British Columbia had no rain for more than thirty days and there are forest fires raging everywhere (you have probably read about them). A sort of martial law exists, and the forest commission can conscript anyone they feel is suitable. I was quite glad of the experience, and spent a day in the forests with other bewildered conscripts, dragging hoses to and fro, and trying to be useful. However, it was only one fire they wanted me, and when at last we shared a beer over its smoking dwindling ruin, I felt a real glow of confraternal pride that it had been vanquished."

"British Columbia at this time of the year seems bewitched. The sky is low and purple, even in midday, from the smoke of innumerable fires, and the air has a terrible stultifying heat and stillness. People seem to move and crawl with the tedium of a slow motion film, and a sense of imminence is never absent."

"In all churches prayers are said for rain, and god knows what strange rites are practiced in private to make it come. Every night lightning will strike somewhere, and more acres of valuable timber conflagrate like tinder. Or sometimes there is just an instantaneous apparently sourceless combustion arising like some multifocal cancer in a doomed area."



Dung beetle occurs in coastal dunes and marshes around the Mediterranean Basin. They are also known as scarab beetles that were sacred to the ancient Egyptians. These insects roll balls of dung across the earth just as the sun god Ra rolled across the sky. A team of scientists from South Africa and Sweden have recently published a study indicating that there was a grain of truth in this belief. They found that these beetles use celestial navigation to roll their balls of dung in a straight path. The beetles orient themselves with star clusters and the wide band of star light we know as the Milky Way. These beetles were astronomers.

Scarabaeus sacer is the most famous of the scarab beetles. To the Ancient Egyptians, this beetle was a symbol of Khepri, the early morning manifestation of the sun god Ra, from an analogy between the beetle's behavior of rolling a ball of dung across the ground and Khepri's task of rolling the sun across the sky.

When the moon is absent from the night sky, stars remain as celestial visual cues. Nonetheless, only birds, seals, and humans had been known to use stars for orientation. African ball-rolling dung beetles exploit the sun, the moon, and the celestial polarization pattern to move along straight paths, away from the intense competition at the dung pile. Even on clear moonless nights, many beetles still manage to orientate along straight paths. The new study shows that dung beetles transport their dung balls along straight paths under a starlit sky but lose this ability under overcast conditions. In a planetarium environment, the beetles orientate equally well when rolling under a full starlit sky as when only the Milky Way is present.

This is the first time celestial navigation has been seen in insects but the scientists believe it may be common. This has environmental implications because even moderate light pollution can completely wash out all but the brightest stars. When that happens the insects may not be able to see the way to go.


Dacke, M., Baird, E., Byrne, M., Scholtz, C. H., & Warrant, E. J. 2013.
Dung beetles use the milky way for orientation. Current Biology 23(4): 298-300.


From: Joel Connelly, staff Updated 8:10 pm, Thursday, March 17, 2016

A Seattle man will shut down his Pay for Prayer website and three other businesses, and return as much as $7.75 million to consumers who paid for prayers, Attorney General Bob Ferguson announced Wednesday. The agreement calls for Benjamin Rogovy to pay back money to approximately 165,000 customers who were victims of deceptive business practices that violated Washington's Consumer Protection Act. A Rogovin-owned for-profit website, the Christian Prayer Center, told visitors that prayer requests would be sent to "thousands" in a kind of Internet prayer circle.

"Local churches and small group prayer lists have been a wonderful way to share the blessings of prayer, but these methods are limited in their ability to rally the true power of thousands of voices all praying in agreement," said the site.

"The Internet has enabled us to build a massive congregation to lift all your prayer requests to a whole new level."

"The 'massive congregation' was largely fiction," AG Ferguson said. The Christian Prayer Center used "systematic deception" in furnishing falsified testimonials from fake religious leaders. The practice also violated the state's Charitable Solicitations Act.

"I believe in the power of prayer," said Ferguson, himself a Catholic. "What I do not believe in and what I will not tolerate is unlawful businesses that prey upon people -- taking advantage of their faith or their need of help -- in order to make a quick buck."

The Christian Prayer Center asked its customers to pay from $9 to $35 for prayers, according to Ferguson. The prayer center website, which ran from 2011 to 2016, is now defunct. It is running a brief message: "We thank you for all the prayers, and we cherish the opportunity to have created a place where Christians could meet to support each other."

According to Ferguson, those who purchased prayer services offered by Christian Prayer Service, or a sister website Orcion Cristiana, between July 1, 2011 and June 30, 2015, are eligible to receive a full refund.

Those so entitled should receive an email from the two businesses by April 8, explaining the opportunity to register a complaint to receive a refund.

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