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"It's about seeing"
on 4 December 2006
Completing a research project and polishing off a journal paper left Nicholas Harberd at loose ends. While casting about for a new project, he struck out on a new course. It is good for us that he did. His quest led him to reflect on Nature's mysterious ways in terms that turned him away from his laboratory work to seek fresh insights. Many years of study of the thale-cress, a humble-looking but informative little plant, had provided much detailed information. Harberd, finding a thale-cress atop a grave in a church cemetery, began considering the plant in a fresh view. He developed a broader vision by studying it in Nature instead of his laboratory.
As the notes progress, Harberd describes the processes involved in the plant's growth and development. He explains how the leaves bud, then expand, each new leaf set 137 degrees away from its neighbour. The angle is a mystery, but many plants make rosettes of leaves, each with their own separation formula. The core of plant is the meristem, and there are two of these in each plant - one for roots and one for the shoot. There are genetic triggers launching the growth process. Harberd explains how these work and, as far as is known, how they interact. The plant, all plants apparently, start with a set of proteins, the DELLAs, that actually inhibit the growth process. He develops the scene with other genes and their proteins that "restrict restraint" allowing the plant to flourish - if the conditions are right.
This book is a reflection of his thoughts, dreams, research problems and other facets of his life and work. Harberd describes the conditions of each day of his note-taking, the weather, the other plants, the soil conditions. The notes are expressive of his reaction to the environment around him, the meanderings of his thoughts as they jump from the pressure of his work to the progress of the little thale-cress. There are setbacks, of course. A slug finds the cress. So does a rabbit, which nearly terminates his study. His reactions in each case are mixed - should he relocate the slug elsewhere? What to do about the rabbit? What happens if caretakers clean up the grave site? Underlying it all are the questions about the next project and what kind of contributions might his group now undertake? What new views of Nature and plant life might result from their work?
Non-scientists don't understand researchers or what they do, claiming scientists lack feeling, notes Harberd. Yet, "wonder is what drives us" says this scientist. The feeling of wonder at how things work is the basis of all research. Nature isn't driven by divine mandate, yet Harberd insists that all research results in a sense of awe. As the notes progress over the days and months, the words "wonder", "exciting" and even "breathtaking" appear with increasing frequency. He rediscovers that himself during an Autumn review of his jottings.
It's impossible not to be caught up in his enthusiasm as he depicts the experiments he and his team perform in developing new ideas or confirming older ones. One experiment, half a century old, proposed an idea for one plant type. Harberd and his group refined the test and tried it on the thale-cress. It confirmed the earlier findings and expanded on it. This kind of work demonstrates the uniformity of cellular processes across many plant species, from scrawny cress to towering redwood. "Wondrous", indeed! [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]