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06 JUNE, 2012

What a Plant Knows

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How a plant can tell whether you’re wearing a blue or red shirt as you’re approaching it.

As I was planting my seasonal crop of tomatoes last month, a good friend (and my personal gardening guru) informed me that they liked their leaves rubbed, “like petting a pet’s ears,” which I received with equal parts astonishment, amusement, and mild concern for my friend. But, as Tel Aviv University biologist Daniel Chamovitz reveals in What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses (public library), that might not be such a crazy idea after all. Plants, it turns out, possess a sensory vocabulary far wider than our perception of them as static, near-inanimate objects might suggest: They can smell their own fruits’ ripeness, distinguish between different touches, tell up from down, and retain information about past events; they “see” when you’re approaching them and even “know” whether you’re wearing a red or blue shirt; like us, they have unique genes that detect light and darkness to wind up their internal clock.

A key reason why plants have evolved such complex sensory system is that, unlike us and our fellow animals, they can’t escape a bad environment, pursue a good one, run away when danger approaches, or get up for a glass of water. Their “rootedness,” which keeps them immobile, is an enormous evolutionary constraint and, like all such constraints, responsible for a great many adaptations. Chamovitz explains:

While most animals can choose their environments, seek shelter in a storm, search for food and a mate, or migrate with the changing seasons, plants must be able to withstand and adapt to constantly changing weather, encroaching neighbors, and invading pests, without being able to move to a better environment. Because of this, plants have developed complex sensory and regulatory systems that allow them to modulate their growth in response to ever-changing conditions. An elm tree has to know if its neighbor is shading it from the sun so that it can find its own way to grow towards the light that’s available. A head of lettuce has to know if there are ravenous aphids about to eat it up so that it can protect itself by making poisonous chemicals to kill the pests. A Douglas fir tree has to know if whipping winds are shaking its branches so it can grow a stronger trunk. Cherry trees have to know when to flower.

Even though plants don’t have a central nervous system where this “knowledge” resides and is enacted, their sophisticated vessels connect their various parts into one responsive whole. In many ways, Chamovitz points out, plants are significantly less genetically different from us than we tend to think — yet his arguments are reserved and rooted in research, far from arguing that plants are just like us. What does emerge from What a Plant Knows, however, is a fascinating inside look at what a plant’s life is like, and a new lens on our own place in nature.

Scientific American has an interview with Chamovitz.

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05 JUNE, 2012

Behavioral Economist Dan Ariely on the Relationship Between Creativity and Dishonesty

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“Creativity can help us tell better stories — stories that allow us to be even more dishonest but still think of ourselves as wonderfully honest people.”

The first use of the U.S. Postal Service was to sell products that didn’t exist. Spam dominates global email volume today. Hoaxes and pranks have been ritualized in everyday culture. And yet, we tend to believe that dishonesty and fraud are confined to “bad people,” of whom there are far fewer than the rest of us “good people” — that immoral behavior, as social psychologist Philip Zimbardo puts it, is a case of a few bad apples in an otherwise good barrel.

Behavioral economist Dan Ariely belongs to the rare breed of scientists who are both actively engaged in empirical research, running all kinds of fascinating experiments in the lab, and keenly skilled in synthesizing those findings into equally fascinating insights into human nature, then communicating those articulately and engagingly to a non-scientist reader. That’s precisely what he has previously done in Predictably Irrational, in which he demonstrates through clever experiments that even our most “rational” decisions are driven by our hopelessly emotional selves, and The Upside of Irrationality, where he explores the unexpected benefits of defying logic. Now comes The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone — Especially Ourselves, in which Ariely asks himself a seemingly simple question — “is dishonesty largely restricted to a few bad apples, or is it a more widespread problem?” — and goes on to reveal the surprising, illuminating, often unsettling truths that underpin the uncomfortable answer. Like cruelty, dishonesty turns out to be a remarkably prevalent phenomenon better explained by circumstances and cognitive processes than by concepts like character.

Ariely writes in the introduction:

In addition to exploring the forces that shape dishonesty, one of the main practical benefits of the behavioral economics approach is that it shows us the internal and environmental influences on our behavior. Once we more clearly understand the forces that really drive us, we discover that we are not helpless in the face of our human follies (dishonesty included), that we can restructure our environment, and that by doing so we can achieve better behaviors and outcomes.

(Of course, one is tempted to counter that we still need moral philosophy to account for the gap between awareness and action, because simply becoming aware of a tendency hardly guarantees there will be the will or desire to change it for the better.)

Particularly interesting is a chapter on the relationship between creativity and dishonesty. The same habits of mind that allow us to create elaborate ideas turn out to also be responsible for enabling dishonesty and the subsequent rationalizations justifying our immoral behavior.

We may not always know exactly why we do what we do, choose what we choose, or feel what we feel. But the obscurity of our real motivations doesn’t stop us from creating perfectly logical-sounding reasons for our actions, decisions, and feelings.

[…]

We all want explanations for why we behave as we do and for the ways the world around us functions. Even when our feeble explanations have little to do with reality. We’re storytelling creatures by nature, and we tell ourselves story after story until we come up with an explanation that we like and that sounds reasonable enough to believe. And when the story portrays us in a more glowing and positive light, so much the better.

That penchant for justification, in fact — which Ariely places at the “control tower of thinking, reasoning, and morality” — is a powerful driver of how we make decisions towards what we want to do and reverse-engineer them towards what we believe the right thing to do is.

[S]ometimes (perhaps often) we don’t make choices based on our explicit preferences. Instead, we have a gut feeling about what we want, and we go through a process of mental gymnastics, applying all kinds of justifications to manipulate the criteria. That way, we can get what we really want, but at the same time keep up the appearance — to ourselves and to others — that we are acting in accordance with our rational and well-reasoned preferences.

Here’s where it gets interesting:

[T]he difference between creative and less creative individuals comes into play mostly when there is ambiguity in the situation at hand and, with it, more room for justification… Put simply, the link between creativity and dishonesty seems related to the ability to tell ourselves stories about how we are doing the right thing, even when we are not. The more creative we are, the more we are able to come up with good stories that help us justify our selfish interests.

But could it be, Ariely wondered, greater intelligence was responsible for better stories? One experiment measured the brain structure of pathological liars, and compared it to normal controls — more specifically, the ratio of gray matter (the neural tissue that makes up the bulk of our brains) to white matter (the wiring that connects those brain cells). Liars, it turned out, had 14% less gray matter than the controls but had 22-26% more white matter in the prefrontal cortex, suggesting that they were more likely to make connections between different memories and ideas as increased connectivity means greater access to the reserve of associations and memories stored in gray matter. “Intelligence,” it turned out, wasn’t correlated with dishonesty — but creativity, which we already know is all about connecting things, was.

In another experiment, Ariely tested how “moral flexibility” was related to the level of creativity required in different jobs by visiting an ad agency and studying the capacity for dishonesty in representatives of its various departments:

[T]he level of moral flexibility was highly related to the level of creativity required in their department and by their job. Designers and copy-writers were at the top of the moral flexibility scale, and the accountants ranked at the bottom. It seems that when ‘creativity’ is in our job description, we are more likely to say ‘Go for it’ when it comes to dishonest behavior.

Ultimately, Ariely explains the osmotic balance between creativity and dishonestly through our capacity for storytelling:

Just as creativity enables us to envision novel solutions to tough problems, it can also enable us to develop original paths around rules, all the while allowing us to reinterpret information in a self-serving way… [C]reativity can help us tell better stories — stories that allow us to be even more dishonest but still think of ourselves as wonderfully honest people.

The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty goes on to explore such fascinating subjects as why we cheat on our diets despite our most earnest resolve, how favors affect our choices, what companies and politicians do to pave the way for dishonesty, and a wealth more.

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05 JUNE, 2012

Chasing Venus: When the World Came Together to Measure the Heavens

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What Ben Franklin, Sweden, and a lucky break in the clouds have to do with the distance to the Sun.

In 1716, sixty-year old Sir Edmund Halley called on astronomers all over the world to leave their cozy observatories, travel to the edges of the known world, set up their telescopes, and turn their eyes toward the sunrise on the morning of June 6th, 1761, when the first Transit of Venus of the scientific age would march across the face of the sun.

In the eighteenth century, the solar system had a shape but not a size. By timing the entrance and the exit of Venus across the sun from latitudes all over the world, Halley explained, astronomers could roughly calculate the distance between the Earth and the Sun — a “celestial yardstick” for measuring the universe, as Andrea Wulf calls it in her excellent book Chasing Venus: The Race to Measure the Heavens.

A photograph from the 1882 Transit of Venus

It was the first worldwide scientific collaboration of its kind, a mathematical olympiad six hours in duration, with years of planning and seconds that counted. Today, more than 250 years after this grand experiment that required astronomers all over the world to gather together and look to the sky at the exact same moment, we will experience the last transit of our lifetime (unless modern medicine makes us survive to December 2117, when the next one will take place).

To avoid looking directly at the sun, a reflecting telescope could project the image onto a wall. (Wellcome Library, London)

Astronomers had two chances to catch this rare event, one in 1761 and one eight years later, in 1769. (The first viewing had taken place in 1639, observed by two astronomers in the English countryside.) The first outing was a gamble that the venture could work, the second was a high-stakes race to get it right. Mild-mannered scientists would have to become swashbuckling adventurers.

Crabtree watching the Transit of Venus, A.D. 1639 by Ford Madox Brown. William Crabtree was one of the first to ever view the transit, along with his friend Jeremiah Horrocks.

In 1761, the best viewing locations for the transit were also the most remote. The best times to capture data, explained Halley, were the shortest and longest durations and required locations in the extreme north and south, and unified efforts of the British, French, Russian, and Swedish governments, despite the fact that the British and French were at war — an unlikely alliance as heartening as the Christmas Truce of 1914.

A 1793 cartoon with a man and a woman viewing the transit (NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Sun-Earth Day)

Months before the 1761 transit, a fleet of international astronomers was dispatched to South Africa, India, Siberia, Mauritius, eastern Finland, Newfoundland, and the remote island of St. Helena with instructions to set up their massive telescopes in some of the most inhospitable places on Earth. They required an impossible union of plentiful government funding, smooth sailing, open roads, understanding locals, accurate clocks, keen eyes, and clear skies.

A 1790 map showing the viewing path of the 1761 Transit of Venus, by James Ferguson. Central Europe would miss much of it, as would most of North and South America. (Library of Congress)

In the morning of June 6, 1761, the Queen of Sweden hurried to the Stockholm observatory to watch as the boiling edge of Venus touched the edge of the nighttime sun at 3:21AM. A Swedish astronomer stationed in eastern Finland was prepared to time the entry at 4AM, but local farmers had decided that the morning was also a good time to set fire to unwanted brush, and the smoke obscured much of his precious view. India caught the entrance at 7AM, Jakarta at 9AM, but most had trouble securing both the entrance and the exit. Clouds plagued the viewings at Cape Town and St. Helena, but Harvard professor John Winthrop was able to carefully time Venus’ exit while stationed in Newfoundland, the only calculation in North America.

A drawing of the 1761 transit, with an accurate depiction of the planet’s path, by Nicholas Ypey (Library of Congress)

Once the data was collected, a second problem emerged: there was no standard measurement on Earth for a proper calculation. A minute in India would be different than one in Halifax which would be different than one in South Africa. The same for feet, inches, meters, miles. The task at hand was monumental, impossible, and essential for mapping the heavens. When the final figures were tallied for the distance of the Earth to the Sun, the range of answers covered over 20 million miles. It was a poor mathematical showing.

Unlike the event eight years before, a fair amount of the 1769 transit would be visible in London. (NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Sun-Earth Day)

Eight years later, in 1769, the scientifically-minded Catherine the Great was in power in Russia, as was George III in England, and both were eager to spend heavily on a new army of astronomers. Over four hundred viewings were scheduled, including locations in Lapland and Baja California. The brightest minds of the Enlightenment rallied around the cause: Benjamin Franklin spearheaded the calculations in the colonies, and Captain James Cook shuttled a fleet of scientists and naturalists to Tahiti, where they viewed the transit with cloudless blue skies.

During the 1769 transit, the observations of Captain James Cook in Tahiti were an essential part of the international data collected. (Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society)

It took three years for Captain Cook to return to England with his essential data, and the calculations when completed narrowed the margin of error from 20 million miles to just 4 million. But the Venus expeditions had gathered not just numbers, but plants and animals and observations of customs from around the world. Chasing Venus chronicles a rare planetary event that happened at a rare juncture in human history, when the age of empire, the age of science, and the age of curiosity brought the world together for just a few moments — to achieve the measure of the universe.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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