Wednesday, December 10, 2008


I once had the good fortune of touring the backstage of the American Museum of Natural History. Drawers full of pottery shards; attics full of bones; model heads of all the human “races” (we are talking differences even between the wide Angles and the [narow?] Saxons, not to mention the Malay and Esquimaux), embarrassedly stored away as racialist skeletons in the closet. A ghostly Teddy Roosevelt charging up the stairs shouting “bully, bully!” Well, I didn’t actually see that, and considering the bombastic statue of him on CPW, I’d think he’d be embarrassed to show up there. Reading this review of a new book about the Natural History Museum in London reminded me of this fascinating excursion. I take this anecdote from the review:

Cryptography means “secret writing.” Cryptogam means “secret marriage,” and is a group name for lichens, fungi, and alga, whose means of reproduction were unknown when they were so named. Evidently, the similarity of the words got even more confused in the fog of war. During World War II, British eccentrics, eggheads, and other signals intelligence experts were gathered at Bletchley Park to decipher the Nazi code. A cryptogamist named Tandy was mistakenly sent there. One imagines he didn’t have much to do until water-logged notebooks were recovered from U-boats. For it turned out this chap Tandy knew all about drying and preserving sodden samples; in making the notebooks readable, he did his bit to break the Enigma Code.

The moral: mind your p’s and crypto's.


amarilla said...

Now that's some lichenlicious algeabra! (forgive me)

M.Thew said...

The cryptogams will inherit the Earth.

amarilla said...

Well, they are on the meek side. Never been clocked by one.