Thursday, October 25, 2007

half-term with the brainiacs

My bother's idea of a half-term break treat for the children is pretty jaw-dropping stuff: he took them to an evening lecture at The Royal Society. Professor Ottoline Leyser was addressing the question of 'Thinking Like a Vegetable'.

Ottoline is the 2007 recipient of the Royal Society Rosalind Franklin Prize. My brother said her work on X-ray diffraction images formed the framework for Watson and Crick's hypothesis on the double helical structure of DNA (Watson and Crick won the Nobel Prize: she didn't), that she was controversial, and that Watson (he of recent racist-comment notoriety) had apparently bad-mouthed her.

This riled me up considerably. "That bastard", I thought. "Stealing credit and denigrating women as well as making racist comments." It inspired me to come along too just to show support.

Well, I thought Ottoline looked surpringly young to have worked with Watson and Crick. My brother explained this was because Ottoline didn't, his comments were about Rosalind Franklin. She didn't get the Nobel, but at least they named a prize after her. Oh, I see.

Anyway, how can you not love a city which offers, amongst all its exhaustingly multifarious entertainment options, a free public lecture on Vegetable Thinking by a top scientist?

Ottoline's lecture brilliantly explained the basic concepts of plant hormonal systems in a very clear, memorable and entertaining way.

One of her basic points is that in studying plants it is desirable to attempt to achieve a plant-centric viewpoint rather than our more natural animal-centricity, as this creates the correct mental atmosphere for the right questions to emerge.

For example, a picture of a bee visiting a flower can more correctly be viewed as a flower manipulating a bee to help it have sex with another flower somewhere else. All the energy in the transaction is supplied by the flower - it supplies all the bee's energy needs as well as reproducing itself.

The hormonal systems of plants which regulate growth and growth options and patterns became quite complex quite quickly, which temporarily lost me and the children, but then Ottoline brought it back on track with a ringing condemnation of our modern cult of the 'natural'.

Nothing we grow is natural - all of it has been artificially developed over thousands of years.

She took the example of a can of organic sweetcorn. "This a can of sweetcorn babies. The sweetcorn does not want you to eat its babies".

Compared with 'real' sweetcorn, our cultivated sweetcorn is a massively engorged freak. 'Real' sweetcorn is tiny, brown, and bristling with unappetising fibres - it evolved this way to avoid being eaten. South American farmers used the technology they had to develop the sweetcorn we have today over many years - by implication, GM is just a souped-up version of what we as a species have always done to the plants we cultivate. The plants scientists want to genetically modify are artificial to begin with.

So I think Ottoline is a GM-supporter. I wanted to ask her if she felt there was absolutely no value in the Organic movement's philosophy, but the chairlady stopped taking questions from the hippies at the back of the room after a magnificently hairy French hippy asked about plant consciousness. Ottoline took the question in her stride, however.

My brother wanted to ask how the hormonal systems evolved, but he looks even more like a hippy than me so stood no chance.

The Royal Society's intellectual generosity did not spill over to offering us a glass of wine (invited reception only), so we spilled out into the crisp autumn evening in search of dinner. I think the children were moderately amused. It was a visit to London, after all.

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