Sunday, August 30, 2015

My Pen Pal, Oliver Sacks

As a kid, I dreamt of having a pen pal in a faraway place. A pen pal who could be a confidant, and with whom I could share ideas and experiences, and who would teach me about the strange world he lived in. In those days before Facebook and WhatsApp, before chatrooms and discussion groups, the words “Dear Pen Pal”, which I had seen romanticized on television and in cinema, seemed to me magical, as did the closing “your friend, “.

I did try a few times, through organized school activities, to write to a pen pal, but I don’t remember these efforts lasting more than one exchange. This need for an unknown pen pal probably found a proxy after age 11, in the numerous letters I wrote to friends across the country I had made while away at camp each summer.

Until I turned 51 that is.

One day, while sifting through the mail in my office, I found a letter with a hand-written address to me, and in the return address was printed “Dr. Oliver Sacks, New York”. I remarked to a friend who happened to be visiting in my office at the time, “Olive Sacks. Who is Oliver Sacks? Isn’t that the neurobiologist who wrote The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat?”. Why would he be writing me?

Inside I found a 3-page letter, hand-written by fountain pen in a flowing script. I admit that I had to remember for a second how to read script, I’d grown so use to email. Oliver wrote to tell me how much he enjoyed reading What a Plant Knows” and then went on to tell me of his own experience as a botanist, his quest for understanding what consciousness is, and how he related to my book.

Needless to say I was flabbergasted. I spent the next six hours crafting a reply, which I realized would also have to be written by hand. Numerous attempts found their way to the trash bin as I scratched out mistakes and misspellings. How did we survive without spell-check and backspace? I wanted to come across as erudite, but not pompous, casual, but not disrespectful. What could I write to the great Oliver Sacks which would at all interest him?

As the letter was hand-written, and I didn’t think to snap a picture of it, I don’t recall what I wrote. I’m sure it had to do with plant biology and plant intelligence.  I signed it, “Sincerely yours, Danny Chamovitz”, put it in an envelope (after I found one of those arcane things) and sent it off to New York.

3 weeks later I received another hand-written letter, again 3 pages long, and with a copy of his soon-to-be-published piece in the New York Review of Books, “TheMental Life of Plants and Worms, Among Others” where he gave some mention to my book. Again I was flabbergasted, especially as he signed it this time, “your friend, Oliver”. 

There it was. I had a pen pal.

Oliver and I corresponded several more times. I visited with him in Jerusalem, where I had the honor of interviewing him as a public lecture. He hosted my wife Shira and I for lunch in his apartment in New York. We corresponded after his announcement of his impending doom, and we corresponded a few weeks ago. In his letters he was full of life and wonder of our world, questioning me on any new studies on the abilities of plants, and telling me of his latest projects. I would write back with some details of obscure experiments, and comment on articles he quoted to me, and I would close with “Your friend, Danny”.

In our short friendship I learned humility, curiosity and the importance of intellectual honesty. And courage. Many people will mourn the loss of one of our age’s great communicators of the mind. I mourn the loss of my pen pal.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Plants in the City: Plants respond to vibrators

Recently there's been a lot of noise in the popular press about plants responding to the sounds of leaf-chewing insects.

Even the New York Times published an article entitled "Noisy Predators Put Plants on Alert, Study Finds".

Such a headline calls into the question the validity of a previous blog here, What a Plant Hears and Chapter 4 of WHAT A PLANT KNOWS where I concluded "in lieu of any hard data to the contrary, we must conclude for now that plants are deaf".

So what's going on here? Is there finally hard data indicating that plants hear?

To really answer this question, one has to read the primary literature, and that is the research paper, "Plants respond to leaf vibrations caused by insect herbivore chewing, that was published recently in Oecologia.

Let's briefly read how the experiment was carried out: 
The green vibrator attached under the leaf
Chewing vibrations were recorded with laser Doppler vibrometry. To experimentally reproduce the caterpillar feeding vibrations, we used piezoelectric actuators supported under a leaf and attached to the leaf using accelerometer mounting wax." (see picture on right)
In other words, the scientists recorded the vibrations caused by chewing, and then reproduced these vibration with a vibrator attached to the leaf. These physical vibration elicited a chemical response in the plant similar to the chemical response to insect chewing.  This is a very interesting finding. But what it shows is the plants respond to physical vibrations induced by being attached to a microvibrator.

So if the popular press insists on bombastic news items, perhaps it would be better to say: "Scientists Find That Plants are Similar to Samantha - They Respond to Vibrators"

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Intelligent Plants for Intelligent Gardens

First there were courses for maximizing your child's IQ. Then came workshops for utilizing emotional intelligence. Now the latest fad sweeping New York and California is Intelligent Gardens - Gardens with a high VQ.

"People are no longer satisfied with a standard run of the mill  garden with dull plants. My customers demand that ionly the most intelligent plants populate their gardens" said Al Binet, the founder of IP - Intelligent Plants, Inc.

"We've developed a new scale called the Vegetal Quotient, or VQ for short, which measures the intelligence of individual plants on a scale of 50 - 150. A plant with a VQ of 150 would be considered highly intelligent (and thus highly sought after by our customers) while a plant with a VQ of 50 would not be found in a an advanced garden."

The VQ considers a number of independent parameters such as the time needed for a plant to differentiate
Dionaea muscipula, has a high VQ due
to its ability to count, remember, and move.
between wave lengths of light, its sensitivity to tactile stimulation, and its ability to communicate with its neighbors. A highly intelligent plant would also have the ability to communicate not only with neighboring plants, but with other species as well, such as insects.

"I've invested hundred's of thousands of dollars in classes for my children to make sure that they test high in academic, social and emotional intelligence. " says Raymond Cattell, "So of course I would want the surrounded only by the most intelligent plants. Mediocre and dim-witted plants have no place in my garden."