Right now, I’m interested in stress. We’ve done a lot of experiments around stressing plants to see how they recover and how they manage stress and things like that, which is funny because they’re actually pretty sadistic experiments. I mean, you can torture a plant until it’s this close to dead and then bring it back. You can do all kinds of things you could never get permission to do to animals, and it would be horrible to even think about doing such things to people—but plants are very much fair game in terms of any experiment you want to propose. Especially little small plants and stuff; which gives a kind of scientific freedom in terms of studying life.
In the normal course of a day, we don't think much about torturing plants, while we have all kinds of issues with torturing animals. (Well, unless you are a Dick Cheney or a Donald Trump, in which case you don't think twice about torture!) Plants are life forms, too. We kill them. We routinely eliminate weeds. As Jahren puts it, "plants are very much fair game."
But, there is more to the plant stress than that aspect.
The interesting thing that we’re coming to is, what is stress? How do you define stress? One thing we’ve noticed is there’s a disconnect between what I think will stress the plant and how it actually reacts. So how do you measure stress? The same life event happens to two people—two people of the same species—they’re not going to react the same. So I can say well, I won’t give these little guys water for a few days, and then I’ll measure how much they didn’t grow, and then I’ll compare the stress between them. But I’ve already projected my own assumption about what stress should be into that experiment—lack of growth. I’m having a lot of fun thinking really deeply about how subjective the experience of stress is. Subjective in terms of human subject is one thing, but subjective in terms of individual experimental plants—that’s a whole other mind box that has to open in order to go there. So that’s what I can say about what I’m really excited about now.
A friend's father, who is a big time backyard gardener, routinely stresses his tomato plants--by not watering them until the time--and the plants always produce more tomatoes than one can imagine. The stress makes the plant more fertile? After all, producing the fruits means producing seeds for the next generation, right?
The anthropogenic climate change could add various kinds of stress to plants. Maybe some will be stressed more than others. I like the way she phrases it, especially because of the reference to work, earnings, and time:
if I quadruple your salary but I don’t give you any more vacation time, you can’t take that around-the-world tour even if it seems cheap to you, because you can’t get the time off. So now it’s not money that’s limiting; it’s time. Plants have a similar thing in that nitrogen can become limiting, water can become limiting when temperatures go up. There may be less water available in very critical places. So the economy of plants can also tip based on these secondary limitations. That’s also very interesting to us. But I think we need to start wrapping our heads scientifically around some of these scenarios that nobody wants.
Interesting, right, to think about what the limiting factors are?
Even more fascinating a thinker Jahren is--she is not merely a science person:
When I was deciding what to do with my life, I felt a need to write. I was very drawn to books in a powerful way. I wanted to study them, with a capital “S.” When I got to college I learned very quickly that if I became a writer society would let me die on the street. And if I became a scientist I would always have a roof over my head and a job, and my labor would be something that people needed. That difference has always struck me as so arbitrary, because I was willing to put my soul into all those activities but it became very clear to me that society viewed one of them as important and one of them as optional. So, let’s think about that for a minute. If you’re a scientist, if you have scientific skills, society believes on some fundamental level based on what I just said that you deserve to eat, you deserve to sleep in a dry place, you are entitled to all these things. Now, if we conceptualize science like we do art—something creative that anyone has the potential to do, maybe not everybody is great at it, but it’s this approachable thing that people write books, etc.—why should they be rewarded for that in the same way? What if we really did view science like that as this thing that anybody can do? How would we conceptualize the value of it? Would we lose that protection? Would we lose this protection that scientists have from the street? From hunger? From unemployment? From irrelevance? So it always strikes me as hypocritical that especially when we start talking about how “oh we need all these people to become scientists and we’ve got to get them interested,” as if people’s personal yearnings are at fault. As if people aren’t already yearning for meaning and discovery and things like that.
A wonderful thought experiment all by itself to "conceptualize science like we do art." Jahren says that the purpose of science is "to feed the soul in the same way that art is." I tell ya, there are some wonderful thinkers out there. The world is better off thanks to them.