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Around the Pond

A Repelling Smell from the “Corpse Flower” Attracts a Crowd

In July, the Amorphophallus titanum—a 6-foot-tall plant known as the corpse flower because it smells like rotting flesh—bloomed for the third time in 30 years. Crowds gathered at the Morrill Greenhouse, willing to brave the stench, to get a view of one of the world’s biggest flowering structures and one of the most unique specimens in the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Natural History Collection.

Native to the Sumatran rain forest, the corpse flower begins to emit its foul odor shortly before it opens, and once it blooms the smell lasts for approximately 24 to 48 hours, depending on conditions. The process is known as biological mimicry—the plant is an exceptional chemical factory that mimics the stink of a rotting carcass in order to attract pollinators such as carrion beetles and blow flies. The corpse flower, which is not a single flower but rather a set of 400 to 500 flowers, is just one of the botanical peculiarities found in UMass Amherst’s unique research and teaching collection.

The corpse flower takes approximately seven to 10 years to bloom for the first time. After that, it may bloom every two to three years, or it may take another seven to 10 years to bloom again. According to Greenhouse Manager Chris Phillips ’13, the plant sits dormant until it has enough energy to bloom; this particular specimen last bloomed about four years ago. He hopes to store some of the plant’s pollen for a possible future collection. “As it continues to decline in the wild, I feel it’s in our mission to keep good healthy specimens in captivity,” says Phillips.



Darkness Visible

Eight University of Massachusetts Amherst astronomers who are members of the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) Collaboration—an international team who earlier this year unveiled the first direct image of a supermassive black hole and its shadow—continue to collect awards. In September, the team of 347 scientists received the 2020 Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics from the Breakthrough Prize Foundation, founded by Mark Zuckerberg, Priscilla Chan, and others.

The EHT Collaboration was awarded the prize for “the first image of a supermassive black hole, taken by means of an Earth-sized alliance of telescopes.” In the award’s description, the foundation recognized the huge collaborative effort it took to accomplish this task. Using eight sensitive radio telescopes strategically positioned around the world, scientists from 60 institutions operating in 20 countries synchronized the telescopes to create a giant virtual telescope “with a resolving power never before achieved from the surface of our planet.” The UMass Amherst contribution came from the Large Millimeter Telescope (LMT), which is operated jointly with Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Astrofísica, Óptica y Electrónica (the National Institute of Astrophysics, Optics and Electronics) and sits atop Sierra Negra—Mexico’s fifth-highest peak. Because of its central geographical location and large aperture, the LMT, which is the biggest millimeter-wave telescope ever built, has been critical to the success of the black hole image project.

UMass Amherst Team Helps Capture First Black Hole Image | Connecting Point | April 25, 2019

The UMass team is comprised of Research Professor Gopal Narayanan, the principal investigator of the UMass Amherst’s EHT mission; Professor F. Peter Schloerb, the principal investigator of the LMT in the global EHT array; Research Professor Neal Erickson; astronomy graduate students Aleks Popstefanija ’22 and Sandra Bustamante ’25; and engineers Vern Fath, Ron Grosslein, and Kamal Souccar. “All the hard work that our team put in on various facets of this experiment has borne fruit. I cannot be prouder of our UMass and our LMT team members who share in this prize,” says Narayanan.

The Breakthrough Prizes, also known as the “Oscars of Science,” are considered to be one of the world’s most generous science awards. The $3 million prize will be split equally among the 347 team members who co-authored six papers published in April reporting the detection of the black hole, which is located in the center of a galaxy in the Virgo cluster known as Messier 87—some 55 million light-years from Earth.



Horse Barn Redux

On September 25, Chancellor Kumble R. Subbaswamy led a ribbon-cutting ceremony to unveil the Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation Hall. Originally built on Grinnell Way, the building—originally just called “the horse barn”—was relocated and rebuilt as part of the UMass Agricultural Learning Center, a 75-acre outdoor classroom.

Built in 1894, the horse barn originally housed the college’s Percheron workhorses. In the 1940s, when the federal government disbanded the U.S. Cavalry, the barn became the stable for the Morgan horses. It was in full use until 1991 when the horses were moved to the Hadley Farm. The barn was last used by the UMass Amherst Police Department for their mounted patrol over a decade ago. The new barn was rebuilt as a replica down to the finest details of the 1894 Queen Anne style architecture. Many pieces of the original barn were reused and repurposed including wood beams and horse stalls.

The new building will serve as a vegetable washing and packaging facility for the student farm program, which provides $100,000 worth of organic produce to 10 wholesalers including Big Y and UMass Dining. Students enrolled in the two-semester farming program get hands-on experience that includes learning how to use farm machinery, testing soil, experimenting with growing food, marketing, and the ins and outs of running a farm venture.

The relocation and renovation project was made possible by a donation from A. Richard Bonanno and the Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation (MFBF). Bonanno owns Pleasant Valley Gardens in Methuen, Massachusetts; is a former president of the MFBF; and was involved with UMass Extension programming for more than two decades.

In a speech at the event, Chancellor Subbaswamy addressed the growing relevance of sustainable farming. “As our global society increases its focus on areas such as food supplies, sustainable agricultural, and climate change, the university is proud to prepare the next generation of leaders and experts who will play a key role in discovering future solutions.” The Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation Hall will be an important venue for those changemakers, he said.