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Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Lab Girl and When I Learned Way Too Much About Pumpkins

I think this blog is best when it's not dependent on the current news cycles. Sure, I've jumped in on the bandwagon of good good essays about whatever's on the news, but I'm never the guy with the best opinion put in just the right way. I think I'll leave that to everyone else. There's been some stuff in the news lately that is all cuckoo-bananas, and I've had a lot of opinions about them, but you've read all the stuff by now and I've got nothing new for you.

You already know how to feel about Charlottesville, Tina Fey, and Joss Whedon. If there was ever nuance in those discussions it's gone now. Already at this point there's the right answer and everything else is the wrong one, and that right answer depends mostly on what city you live in and what kind of mustard you use.

Besides, I've talked about most of this stuff in general anyway. For example: I'm afraid of totalitarian governments, and am aware that totalitarianism comes from the right and the left. In that second link I work through the idea of free speech. You can watch me literally do it, because I set out to make one point in that post and ended up talking myself around to the opposite side. And guys, I'm happy to leave the recent news to his family to sort out, though I get why it's being discussed. Honestly I haven't thought of Joss Whedon as a "feminist icon" for quite a while now, because I think if he were really as feminist as he says he is, he'd be giving more jobs to women.

For real, though. These posts take too long to be digested and forgotten as the news cycle moves on. This isn't my job. These are like pots that I lovingly create out of clay where the clay is the 26 letters of the Modern English alphabet, the wheel is an over-sized ergonomic keyboard, and the Patrick Swayze behind me, lovingly guiding my hands, is my local library: nuzzling me with its never-ending supply of free reading material that is my collective muse. I miss you, Patrick. Haunt me with your blog ideas once again. Occupy the Whoopi Golberg that is my library card and serves as an intermediary between me and the treasure trove that is your love/all those books. Dance with me, Whoopi.

I give these misshapen pots freely, like your amateur friend who wears a lot of scarves. I do it with the understanding that they may only be marginally useful, because they are somehow somewhere between an ashtray and a flower pot--yet useless as either--but I put my very soul into them. Much like how Thomas Kinkade puts a tiny bit of his DNA into the signatures he places on his "paintings of light." Where am I going to put these pots when I know he's going to ask about them when he comes to visit, you say. I'll never invite him over again. This gift is a curse and our friendship a sham.

I want these to be unlike Joss Whedon scripts, which is to say somewhat evergreen. I'm often dismayed when I look back at old posts that I'm proud of but are too dated because it's about the election or mongoose. Nobody wants to talk about that anymore. I want Howie's Book Club posts to be like Monty Python sketches: only appealing to nerds timeless. If this were my job, it would be one thing. A post makes money, it's no big deal if it disappears into obscurity when we move on to the next crisis; it paid my rent for the month. But when I'm just doing this to do it, it's a whole different scene.

Here at the HBC, we talk about big ideas. We talk about mashed potatoes here. We define flotsam and jetsam. We explore the psychology of drama kids. Metaphors, philosophy, a woman with the proportional strength of a spider. You know that quote attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt but who the heck knows if anyone really said anything? The one that says, "Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people." Well that's us here. We're not going to talk about celebrities here because we are bigger than that. We are going to talk instead about pumpkins.

What's a more modern American thing than taking a crop that is so ingrained in human history that pumpkin seeds were found dating back to 7,000 years ago, evidence of their being a staple for food and functionality, and turning it into a Minion. OK, you guys, this is good because it dovetails back to what we'll be talking about soon. That article I just linked is from The Atlantic, which I consider a reputable publication that has been around since 1857. But when I click on the link for how long ago pumpkins were discovered in Central America, this is the source.

So that's a Suwannee County Extension's newsletter reporting an elementary school tour of a pumpkin patch. Where do they get their information? Who knows? So I dig further. I find the reference to 7,000 years to 7,500 years ago when pumpkin seeds were used. So I go to Wikipedia. That entry reaffirms the 7,000 year number, but its citation is "Everything you need to know about pumpkins for Halloween!" Also The Columbia Encyclopedia. Which is a dead link. Pumpkin Patch dot com might look only slightly less professional than Howie's Book Club dot com the website, but it's not inspiring confidence.

How far does this rabbit hole go? What is it that Big Pumpkin doesn't want us to know? Whatever it is, I was going to get to the bottom of it. Which I did, ten minutes later, when I found this textbook, which apparently costs $253 dollars but I could access enough of to find some kind of scholarly information regarding pumpkins. The number checks out, you guys. The part about the drying them out and making mats out of them goes, too. Kudos to the Suwannee County Extension, but in the future be a dear and save a guy some time and cite your sources. Turns out the rabbit hole goes approximately as deep as it takes to fit a few rabbits.

Anyway, this is part of my point. We'll get there. So back to pumpkins. Clearly, now that we know the historical record, entire civilizations have lived off of the humble and noble pumpkin. They make mats out of it or whatever. European settlers loved the things and made soups, hollowed them out and packed them with food and baked them. Basically every one of us can credit our very existence to one of our ancestors at some point staving off starvation with one of these heavy orange SOBs.

So Americans spend $100 million dollars a year hollowing them out, throwing all of the food part of them in the garbage, and then carving something ridiculous into them to display for one night before letting them rot long enough for a teenager to throw it from his or her car at my mailbox. Some of us might save some seeds and fry them so that our kids can eat one and say, "it's ok," and not eat anymore even though they asked us 1100 times to fry them because it's "part of Halloween."

If it took existing for thousands of years of cultivation for this to have been carved it will have been worth it

In my book, this means that we're doing pretty well as a species. Many of us are suffering, that is for sure, and many of us do not have the discretionary funds to throw at large gourds that serve no purpose other than to provide free advertisement for perpetually sold out Broadway shows. But enough of us are doing well enough that we'll take that life-sustaining Vitamin A, potassium, and fiber, wrap it up in soggy newspaper, and send it to the landfill. This is like if we took the thing that basically sustained almost half of an entire nation and shot it out of guns at stop signs. You know, for fun.

There's two points here. The first is that sometimes we do things just cause. That's what comes next after our basic needs are filled. Leisure/exploration. And as anyone who has slaved over a Jack-O-Lantern or painted figurines for a role-playing game or made costumes for Comic-Con can tell you, sometimes leisure is work. Sometimes you do something just because you want to find out if you can do it, and if you can learn something while you do. That's the second thing: sometimes we want to know the answer to something even if it has little to no bearing on our life.

I think this is why babies put so much stuff in their mouths. It's clearly not because they're hungry, because babies actually don't eat any food, choosing instead to spit it onto their chin and absorbing nutrition by mashing bananas between their fingers. Instead, they are learning. Babies are little scientists whose mouths are the equivalent of mass spectrometers. What's this made of, they say, and can I destroy it?

The amount of time that humans have been eating pumpkins isn't a question that has bearing on my life. In fact, I hadn't even thought about it until I looked up how much we spend as a nation on pumpkins. But once I saw that number, I thought, how did they come up with that? Because it's interesting. Also how does a little seed turn sunlight and soil nutrients into a giant orange ball that is so, so satisfying to throw out of a moving vehicle? These are important questions.

Like, in Lab Girl, which is the book I read, Hope Jahren is trying to figure out what hackberry seeds are made of. She's a paleobotanist, and hackberry seeds are often found in ancient sites. They are seeds so tough that they can survive centuries of harsh winters and pass through an animals gut unscathed, just waiting for the perfect conditions to germinate and sprout. Since they stick around so long, she guesses that there is data in these pits about conditions from ancient times.

So she uses an acid that dissolves peach pits. It works on some of the seed, which suggests part of it is made of the same stuff, which isn't a surprise. The surprise is the stone like structural lattice behind. Something that the living hackberry tree created. So she borrows some mass spectrometer time in the middle of the night when the creepy lab guy with no boundaries won't be there, and discovers that the lattice is the exact molecular structure as opal. Hackberry trees create rocks. That's nuts (haha). From here she learns how to tease out trace elements from the seeds to calculate climate conditions from ancient history.

That's pretty cool, I think. Like that matters to all of us, whether we believe it or not. But at the root of all of this is just plain old curiosity. That's kind of the thing about science and pumpkins. Sometimes you don't know what you're going to end up with when you start. It could be useful and worth putting on Instagram, or it could be trash that you quietly throw away in order to maintain your illusion of a perfect life. At one point Hope and her endlessly loyal lab partner Bill spend a week taking samples of sphagnum moss in Ireland, only to have them swept into a garbage can at airport security because they didn't have the permits. That's science, too.
Science has taught me that everything is more complicated than we first assume, and that being able to derive happiness from discovery is a recipe for a beautiful life.
I'm not going to belabor the pumpkin thing. You get it. Really I picked pumpkins because Lab Girl is about plants and pumpkins are in the top 3 funniest plants there are and the other two are only funny because they are so phallic.

Plants are amazing, that's one thing we learn from this book. Their endless toil to turn sunlight into sugars, while constantly fighting drought, disease, and competition, is inspiring. Jahren draws lots of parallels between plants and humans. Even though she recognizes that in very fundamental ways we are very different, there are still life lessons to be learned. The chapters alternate between very accessible science and personal stories from her life.
Public and private organizations all over the world have studied the mechanics of sexism within science and have concluded that they are complex and multifactorial. In my own small experience, sexism has been something very simple: the cumulative weight of constantly being told that you can’t possibly be what you are.
There's that, too. The sexism in sciences. I don't know if you've heard about this, but it's still out there, I'm told.
I’m good at science because I’m not good at listening. I have been told that I am intelligent, and I have been told that I am simple-minded. I have been told that I am trying to do too much, and I have been told that what I have done amounts to very little. I have been told that I can’t do what I want to do because I am a woman, and I have been told that I have only been allowed to do what I have done because I am a woman. I have been told that I can have eternal life, and I have been told that I will burn myself out into an early death. I have been admonished for being too feminine and I have been distrusted for being too masculine. I have been warned that I am far too sensitive and I have been accused of being heartlessly callous. But I was told all of these things by people who can’t understand the present or see the future any better than I can. Such recurrent pronouncements have forced me to accept that because I am a female scientist, nobody knows what the hell I am, and it has given me the delicious freedom to make it up as I go along. I don’t take advice from my colleagues, and I try not to give it. When I am pressed, I resort to these two sentences: You shouldn’t take this job too seriously. Except for when you should.
I thought that part was pretty interesting, but it wasn't the whole thing. I thought there would be more of it. Jahren is unrelentingly determined, so he recognizes the bias, and then puts her head down and plows through it. For the most part it's really breezy and fun. Jahren has a knack for humor and an even more impressive knack for metaphor. But you guys it wouldn't be a Howie's Book Club approved book if it wasn't a bummer sometimes.

Here's the frustrating thing: Americans want to shoot potatoes out of guns and cut holes in pumpkins and shoot off firework shows that cost literally thousands of dollars in their front yards, but we do not want to spend money on science. We "like" Facebook pages called I Effing Love Science that are really just pictures of space, and yesterday we all gathered in public spaces and loved on an astronomical event that was perfectly predicted by scientists to the second, and yet we'll be damned if someone asks us for one more penny to study the world around us.
You may have heard that America doesn't have enough scientists and is in danger of "falling behind" (whatever that means) because of it. Tell this to an academic scientist and watch her laugh. For the last thirty years, the amount of the U.S. annual budget that goes to non-defense related research has been frozen. From a purely budgetary perspective, we don't have too few scientists, we've got far too many, and we keep graduating more each year. America may say that it values science, but it sure as hell doesn't want to pay for it. Within environmental science in particular, we see the crippling effects that come from having been resource-hobbled for decades: degrading farmland, species extinction, progressive deforestation... The list goes on and on.
And this isn't Sarah Palin making fun of fruit fly research (though that has led to major advances in medical science). This is environmental science, and I hate to be the one to point this out to everyone, but the environment is where we live. It's not just where we go camping or trees in which hippies live to hug spotted owls or whatever. It's everything. Water, air, pumpkins. All of it. It's all the stuff. We happily study things that are built to kill other people. We should be studying the stuff that keeps us alive.
Working in the hospital teaches you that there are only two kinds of people in the world: the sick and the not sick. If you are not sick, shut up and help.
Those of us throwing pumpkins away are the not sick in this case. We're talking about the dang future here. If you can, shut up and help.
The potatoes grew bigger as carbon dioxide increased. This was not a surprise. We also saw that these big potatoes were less nutritious, much lower in protein content, no matter how much fertilizer we gave them. This was a bit of a surprise. It is also bad news, because the poorest and hungriest nations of the world rely on sweet potatoes for a significant amount of dietary protein. It looks as if the bigger potatoes of the future might feed more people while nourishing them less. I don’t have an answer for that one.