Thursday, November 21, 2013

I did NOT write this pseudoscience mumbo-jumbo

What would you do when find that an article you had published was unlawfully copied by another website as if you were a guest writer, and then given free permission to republish by that same site?

What do you do if not only had one of your articles has been unlawfully redistributed, but that its been altered with a paragraph you never wrote?

And what would you do if this ghost-written paragraph made you seem like a pseudo-scientific nut?

Well, if you have answers, please let me know - I need them.

In the past 3 weeks, over 1000 web hits have attributed the following paragraph to me:
“Plants have scientifically been show[n] to draw alternative sources of energy from other plants. Plants influence each other in many ways and they communicate through "nanomechanical oscillations" vibrations on the tiniest atomic or molecular scale or as close as you can get to telepathic communication. However, their sense and communication are measureable in very much the ways as are humans.”
In case its not clear, I DID NOT WRITE THIS!!

There is NO SCIENTIFIC PROOF for any of this.There is no such thing as alternative sources of energy from plants (unless you are talking about biofuels, which I doubt was the intent here); there is no such thing as plant communication through nanomechanical oscilations or telepathic communication. This is pseudoscience new-age mumbo-jumbo at its worse. And I am mortified that it was attributed to me.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

How to preserve leaves

This may be useful. I've taken it from the Forum section of my Coursera class:

Charles (a student): 
Does anybody knows what's the best procedure to preserve leaves?
One of my hobbies is collecting leaves, (yeah I know, It sounds sort of strange), sometimes I let the leaves in a book, but sometimes they lose their color, is there any other way to preserve their color?

Homo Neanderthal (another student):
Yes - microwave them - it dries them out and stops breakdown and release/mixing/degradation of colours. 

Take some paper towels, put the leaves between them and then give them 30s or more in the microwave. This will depend on the power of your microwave and the thickness/size of the leaves - don't use already dry fallen ones - take them from the tree while they are moist and microwave them until dry.

The main risk is over microwaving - they can catch fire if you overdo it - so keep an eye on them. If they curl when you take them out - that is not long enough..

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Plant biology in the age of MOOCs

MOOCs, massive open online courses, are revolutionizing the way we approach higher (and maybe even lower) education. Courses offered by Coursera, Udacity and edX reach students all over the globe, democratizing the availability of high-level advanced education. Many courses have had registrations of over 100,000!

Let me repeat that: Many courses have had registrations of over 100,000! Udacity's course Introduction to Computer Science had over 300,000 students. 180,000 took Machine Learning, and as seen in the table here, many of Coursera's offerings have had huge enrollments.

I have the honor and responsibility of presenting Coursera's first MOOC on plant biology: What a Plant Knows (and other things that you didn't know about plants). This seven-lecture series, adapted from my book What A Plant Knows, starts October 1. This course is offered as a "science for non-science majors" course, and several universities, including Tel Aviv University, are offering credit for this on line course.

My motivation for developing this course is a desire to popularize the amazing complexity of plant biology and plant research. As a biology professor, I have been repeatedly discouraged by the general ignorance of plant biology, not only in the general public, but also among my colleagues. On a practical level, this is manifested in reduced interest in botany-related courses and in plant research in general (and subsequent funding for plant biology research).

While many factors have contributed to the drop in popularity of plant-based research, part of the responsibility falls on us plant biologists who have done a rather lousy job of communicating both the excitement and importance of research in plants. We've left the playing field of public opinion empty for "brain sciences" and "personalized medicine" to prevail, and we've seen academic agendas dominated by both programs and infrastructure dedicated to such fields. While not denigrating the importance of these subjects, I think growing food for the world's burgeoning population should get at least equal attention.

My colleague Nir Ohad helping me in one of the lectures
With this in mind, I've designed What A Plant Knows as a scientifically valid, yet accessible, introduction to plant biology for the non-expert. It has not been a simple task. Doing "popular biology" is not inherent in our training as scientists. Presenting a popular version of plant biology without "dumbing it down"  is not trivial. Teaching to a camera is completely different than teaching to a lecture how filled with questioning students. With no feedback from facial expressions, and no questions, how do I know if I was clear?

And I cannot predict the responses of my peers. Will presenting such a popular course be considered selling out? Would the time I spent developing this course been better spent furthering the basic research carried out in my lab?

Hopefully, if even a small percentage of the tens of thousands of students who have registered for the course find a new interest in plant sciences, then we as plant biologists can tap into this interest to influence a new generation of scientists.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Serendipitous, Cross-Generational Story that Lead Me to Coursera

Copied from:


While working towards my Ph.D. at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, I took an advanced graduate seminar entitled “Photobiology”, taught by Prof. Dov Koller. I knew very little about the subject, and registered for the course probably as much for its fitting my schedule, as for any other reason. Little did I know then that this 2-point seminar would have a lasting influence on my life, and even connect me to the Coursera course I am offering this fall entitled What a Plant Knows. 

Dov KollerDov was a large man, with a ready smile and an inherent ability to convey his fascination with the ways in which plants sense and respond to light signals. His research dealt with photo-tracking – the ability of certain plants to reposition their leaves or flowers to the position of sun in the sky. But Dov’s course was not primarily about his own research. Rather he introduced us not only to a biophysical description of light, but to the cutting edge research, being done around the world, on plant responses to light. 

I found this class so interesting, that I decided that for my postdoctoral research I would look for a lab studying light signaling in plants. In consultation with Dov I identified the best labs doing relevant research, and finally decided on the laboratory of Xing-Wang Deng at Yale University, where I would spend over three years studying the biochemical and genetic basis of photomorphogenesis – the plant’s morphological response to light signals. My publications during this time enabled me to get an academic position at Tel Aviv University in 1996. During these years and after, I enjoyed meeting Dov at seminars and conferences and in updating him on my work. 


So where’s the connection to Coursera? When I was asked this past Spring by Tel Aviv University to prepare their inaugural Coursera class. Several weeks after agreeing to do this, I was asked by the vice president of Tel Aviv University if I would meet with one of the founders of Coursera, who would be visiting the campus. This cofounder is Daphne Koller. Only after several minutes did I make the connection that Daphne is Dov’s daughter.

So as I start my course next week, I will be thinking of the Koller family, without whom I would not be teaching a class on plant senses (including plant responses to light). Without Dov, I would not have been exposed to the scientific field that became part of my life’s work, and the subject of my Coursera course. And without Daphne I wouldn’t have the opportunity to present to so many people the wonderful world of plant senses that so enthralled her father.


This is a story about the closing of a circle; a story that spans three generations and goes around the globe. My father, who passed away 6 years ago, was a lifelong educator, who cared passionately about teaching. He taught and inspired his students, and influenced the life of many, including Professor Danny Chamovitz. He also taught many, including myself, the love of learning and knowledge; my work on Coursera is a testament to his memory. It is a wonderful twist of fate that allows Danny to convey the ideas developed in my father’s research, via Coursera, to thousands of students around the world. I hope that they too continue to pay it forward, and propagate their knowledge and passion for learning to many others. [Pictured here are Daphne, her parents and her older daughter Natalie].

Thursday, July 18, 2013

When McCarthyism Meets Science

Last week I was boycotted because of my scientific opinions.

About 6 weeks ago I was approached by the producers of a radio station in the Bay Area about interviewing me about my book WHAT A PLANT KNOWS. The producers defined their program as "a politically left, investigative, health/science show on the Pacifica station KPFA", I've done many such interviews since my book was published, for a variety of genres, including shows geared for science, current events, kabbala, Christians, and even kids, so I gladly accepted this invitation as well. In no case did the orientation of the station greatly influence the content. The interview was scheduled for July 9th at 11 PM Israel time, 1 PM in California.

Six hours before the scheduled interview I got the following email from my publicist  at FSG/SA books: "So sorry about this, but she has canceled the interview (upon realizing you’re in favor of genetically modified food). I’m so sorry! Now you don’t have to go on air at midnight, at least."

At first I found this amusing, especially as I wasn't even supposed to talk about agriculture and genetic engineering! It was even funny as a stereotype of Northern California.

But upon further consideration, I've realized that this censoring based on scientific opinion is very disturbing with dangerous implications.
Yes, the producers of this private radio show are not obligated to interview me or anyone else. But once having invited me about an issue completely unrelated to genetic engineering, to cancel this invitation based on other opinions, smacks of McCarthysim. Indeed as I did not at all relate to genetically modified food in my book, the producers of this show must have carried out a McCarthy-like background check to uncover my support of genetic engineering in agriculture. Having found a few posts in this blog (e.g. here ), or an interview about the use of GMO technology, decided to ban me (and my book) from their enlightened show.

If my book was interesting enough to warrant an interview with me before this information was revealed, why was it not after they found out that I think the genetic engineering is an essential tool in our arsenal to feed the world?

The answer I must come to is that the producers of this show are no different from other fundamentalists. I am sure the producers would shudder at this comparison, and they would likely be among the first to deride attempts to promote creationism in the public schools, or to silence scientists in the discourse on global warming. But the producers of this show with their anti-GMO agenda are truly no different from those who are anti-evolution or anti-climate change.

Both are based on deeply rooted beliefs. Both delegitimize anyone with an opposing opinion. And most disturbingly for our future, both are anti-science and technology. Both ignore, or dismiss as irrelevant, accumulating experimental scientific evidence that go against their beliefs. Both groups also often use the same types of convoluted thinking that includes argumentum ad ignorantiam.

In a separate blog I'll layout the reasons I happily eat genetically modified foods and feed them to my children. Any I welcome any debate on the matter. I would never boycott anyone who's willing to engage in scientific discourse.

Monday, April 1, 2013

No sibling rivalry for Petunias


Petunias grown in a nursery together with their sibling petunias thrived much better post-separation than did a single petunia grown on its own. This conclusion jives with numerous studies which show that puppies kept with their litter-mates for at least 8 weeks develop better than puppies separated from their siblings soon after birth, and also fits with accumulating evidence showing the importance to human development of keeping a baby in physical contact with people, rather than isolating a baby in a crib.

Seeds of Petunia hybrida were germinated in two different environments. In the green house termed “Petunia Patch”, the seeds were sown 5 cm from each other.
Petunias in the "Petunia Patch"

In the second green house termed “Onion Patch”, individual petunias were planted at least 50 m from each other. 5, 10, 20 and 45 days post-germination, individual plants from the Petunia Patch were transplanted to the Onion Patch. Control plants remained in each plot from germination until the end of the experiment. Each plot received the same watering and fertilizer regimen. Growth parameters (germination rate, height, leaf number, flowering time, flower diameter, seed set) were gathered daily over a two-month period.

The results were astounding. The longer the petunia stayed in the Petunia Patch, the more the individual plants thrived (see graph on left). The effect was especially significant for the first 10 days. Most of the petunias germinated in the Onion Patch, or transplanted early in life, failed to thrive. When asked to comment on the flowers that didn’t bloom, Drs. John N.Kamano, William E. Faber and Maurice Merl  said, “They were just lonely little petunias in an onion patch”.

These results have implications for home gardeners who are asked to purchase neighboring petunias in their local nursery so as to lessen the separation stress of plants upon leaving the nursery.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Guest Blog: Yunal Sapir and The Shy Red Bride

Anemone coronaria
Dr. Yuval Sapir is Director of the Tel Aviv University Botanical Gardens

The red-crowned anemone, Anemone coronaria, is one of the most common and beloved wildflowers in Israel. It's Hebrew name, Kalanit, is from the Hebrew word for bride, dressed beautifully in a red dress. From January through March, red carpets of anemones cover the hills in the Mediterranean region, with beetles buzzing in and out the flowers. These are glaphyrid beetles that are adapted to forage pollen and to mate on the red, bowl-shaped anemone flowers. The beetles are attracted by the large amount of pollen in the numerous anthers of the flower. While eating or mating inside the flowers, their body is covered with pollen grains that transferred on to the next flower.

Anemone flowers live for two weeks, but only in the start is the stigma receptive to accept pollen grains. Although the flowers are hermaphrodite, containing both sexes in the same plant, the female (stigma) is matures earlier than the male (pollen), effectively mandating that sex has to be between two different flowers. When the male function is active in the flower, there are other younger flowers that have their stigma ready. Interestingly, during its two-weeks life time, the anemone's flower keeps growing. Young, female flowers are small and perfectly red. Later on, the male flower is larger and also develops white ring around the center where the pollen is available for the pollinating beetles. Of-course, the male function of the flower benefits from being prominent on the white background. The more seen, the more visits and the more pollen grains spread out to females. The female function, on the other side, needs very little number of visits, because one pollen grain fertilizing an ovule is enough to make a seed. So no need to be prominent like the male; the small red flower is just enough to get pollen. The shy female will get what it needs soon enough.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Guest Blog: Yuval Sapir and 50 Shades of Pink

A field of wild anemones flowering in early January.
Note that most of the flowers are not red.
Dr. Yuval Sapir is Director of the Tel Aviv University Botanical Gardens

The crowned anemone, Anemone coronaria, is well-known for its red flowers. But its flowering season, January to March, is also characterized by non-red anemone flowers, particular early in the season. 

While the red flowers are pollinated by glaphyrid beetles, the non-red ones are pollinated by any possible insect hovering around in the winter. All except beetles. But no worries - beetles are anyhow not around in this early period of the winter (January). Indeed, the non-red anemones flower earlier than the red ones, even where they grow in the same place. 

Another difference between the two types (red and non-red) is that while the red ones are common everywhere, from extreme desert to the northernmost Mediterranean parts of Israel, the non-red anemones are unique to humid Mediterranean ecosystems. This is probably due to drought tolerance trait linked to the red-color allele. The genetic system for the color of the anemone includes two possibilities (alleles): red, or non-red. Red is recessive, this means that a only if both alleles are red, the flowers are red. If one of the alleles is non-red, the flower will be any other shade of pink, from white to purple. Despite the superiority of the non-red alleles, they are non-exist in the southern populations, in the dry Mediterranean and in the desert. This linkage between flower color and environmental adaptation is interesting, and has not been extensively studied.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Ebony or Rosewood? Guild D-40 or Guild D-50?

I've said over and over, that every aspect of our life is influenced by plants. Music is a great example of how plant anatomy influences our lives.

I've been the proud owner of a Guild D-50 acoustic guitar since 1983. Before I purchased this beauty, I spent days, together with my friend Mo, frequenting the music stores of mid-town Manhattan and trying every guitar possible. We kept coming back to two Guild models: the D-40 and the D-50.

The ebony fret-board on my guitar
One of the main differences between these two great guitars is the wood used to make the fret-board: The D-40 boasts a fret-board made from rosewood, while the D-50's is made from ebony. In the end we both opted for the latter.

Ebony cost roughly 10 times more than rosewood, so what characteristics does it have that made us forkout the extra funds for these guitars?

Ebony has a very has a fine grain and is much harder than rosewood. This difference in density is felt in the fingertips which feel as if they move faster between fingerings. Aside from the feel, ebony boards impart the guitar with a unique sound which the trained ear can pick up. It enables great sustain, and a crisp sound with percussive overtones. But I wouldn't recommend an ebony fret-board for a novice guitarist; rosewood is much more forgiving.

Rosewood boards also gives a richer, warm sound. This is partly because of the anatomy of the wood. Rosewood has larger pores than ebony, and these microscopic pores absorb overtones.

This is just one example of how wood, which basically old, dead and filled xylem tubes, the tubes that trees use to transport water, influences music.