December 9 – Happy Birthday, Augustus Quirinus Rivinus

Posted on December 9, 2014

Is it a pansy or a petunia? A rose or a rhododendron?

And which flowering plants are closely related to one another?

As long as people have been people, they knew a lot about plants. They closely studied the leaves and flowers, cones and barks, roots and fruits of plants, and they discovered the food and medicine value of the various parts of plants. People passed on this knowledge to younger generations verbally and, once writing was invented, through written texts.

Centuries ago, scientists began to codify this “folk knowledge” that had been passed on from parents to children to grandchildren. They began to categorize things more exactly, and they began to name things scientifically. I'm sure you get that the same plant has different names in different languages: a rose may be warda, roz, roos, bunga mawar, gul, or ruusu, depending on where you live and what language you speak – but it will still, as Shakespeare pointed out, smell as sweet. But once scientists gave the rose one scientific name (in this case genus Rosa), everyone could communicate more easily. (Specific types of roses have different species names: Rosa majalis, Rosa moschata, Rosa woodsii, and so on.)

Today's famous birthday contributed to those early attempts to categorize and name plants. Augustus Quirinus Rivinus, also called Augustus Bachmann, was born in Germany on this date in 1652. He became a doctor of medicine, and he also studied botany and astronomy. He became a professor of pathology (the study of disease), physiology (the study of living systems), and botany (the study of plants). He was put in charge of his university's medical garden.

It was Rivinus who first consistently used genus and species names, such as the scientific rose names discussed above. Carl Linnaeus got credit for the naming scheme we currently use for organisms, and Linnaeus used several of Rivinus's innovations.

Another thing that Rivinus promoted through his use was the dichotomous key. This sort of key is useful for people to determine the identity of an animal, plant, or other organism. There are a series of steps with just two choices; when the user makes her choice, she branches to another question with two choices. This process goes on and on until she arrives at the name of the organism she is trying to identify.

  • Here and here are more dichotomous keys you can explore. 

It can be fun to make a dichotomous key for your
own imagined fantasy creatures!

Also on this date:

Anniversary of a car-sized space acorn crash-landing??? 

Plan ahead:

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