Book Review: The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben


Author: Peter Wohlleben Cover of The Hidden Life of Trees
Title: The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate: Discoveries From A Secret World
Translator: Jane Billinghurst
Publication Info: Greystone Books, 2015
Summary/Review:

Peter Wohlleben, a forester from Germany, writes a series of essays about trees – how they communicate, how they feel, how they handle the stress.  If you’ve never thought that trees can do these things, you’re in for a treat.  Fungal networks in the roots allow individual trees to communicate with other trees in the forests.  In fact, trees can even scream.  They have to deal with the strains of storms breaking their limbs, animals chipping away their bark, and fungi invading their interior. If you like trees, or even just enjoy a nice walk in the wood, this book is a great guide to the hidden world of what is going on around you.

Favorite Passages:

“most individual trees of the same species growing in the same stand are connected to each other through their root systems. It appears that nutrient exchange and helping neighbors in times of need is the rule, and this leads to the conclusion that forests are superorganisms with interconnections much like ant colonies.”

“They love nutrient-rich, loose, crumbly soil that is well aerated to a depth of many feet. The ground should be nice and moist, especially in summer. But it shouldn’t get too hot, and in winter, it shouldn’t freeze too much. Snowfall should be moderate but sufficient that when the snow melts, it gives the soil a good soaking. Fall storms should be moderated by sheltering hills or mountain ridges, and the forest shouldn’t harbor too many fungi or insects that attack bark or wood. If trees could dream of an earthly paradise, this is what it would look like. But apart from a few small pockets, these ideal conditions are nowhere to be found. And that is a good thing for species diversity.”

“Today’s deposits of these fossil fuels come from trees that died about 300 million years ago. They looked a bit different—more like 100-foot-tall ferns or horsetail—but with trunk diameters of about 6 feet, they rivaled today’s species in size. Most trees grew in swamps, and when they died of old age, their trunks splashed down into stagnant water, where they hardly rotted at all. Over the course of thousands of years, they turned into thick layers of peat that were then overlain with rocky debris, and pressure gradually turned the peat to coal. Thus, large conventional power plants today are burning fossil forests. Wouldn’t it be beautiful and meaningful if we allowed our trees to follow in the footsteps of their ancestors by giving them the opportunity to recapture at least some of the carbon dioxide released by power plants and store it in the ground once again?”

“Wood fibers conduct sound particularly well, which is why they are used to make musical instruments such as violins and guitars. You can do a simple experiment to test for yourself how well these acoustics work. Put your ear up against the narrow end of a long trunk lying on the forest floor and ask another person at the thicker end to carefully make a small knocking or scratching sound with a pebble. On a still day, you can hear the sound through the trunk incredibly clearly, even if you lift your head. Birds use this property of wood as an alarm system for their nesting cavities.”

“Every trunk is different. Each has its own pattern of woody fibers, a testament to its unique history. This means that, after the first gust—which bends all the trees in the same direction at the same time—each tree springs back at a different speed. And usually it is the subsequent gusts that do a tree in, because they catch the tree while it’s still severely bowed and bend it over again, even farther this time. But in an intact forest, every tree gets help. As the crowns swing back up, they hit each other, because each of them is straightening up at its own pace. While some are still moving backwards, others are already swinging forward again. The result is a gentle impact, which slows both trees down. By the time the next gust of wind comes along, the trees have almost stopped moving altogether and the struggle begins all over again.”

“Chlorophyll helps leaves process light. If trees processed light super-efficiently, there would be hardly any left over—and the forest would then look as dark during the day as it does at night. Chlorophyll, however, has one disadvantage. It has a so-called green gap, and because it cannot use this part of the color spectrum, it has to reflect it back unused. This weak spot means that we can see this photosynthetic leftover, and that’s why almost all plants look deep green to us. What we are really seeing is waste light, the rejected part that trees cannot use. Beautiful for us; useless for the trees. Nature that we find pleasing because it reflects trash?”

“I, for one, welcome breaking down the moral barriers between animals and plants. When the capabilities of vegetative beings become known, and their emotional lives and needs are recognized, then the way we treat plants will gradually change, as well. Forests are not first and foremost lumber factories and warehouses for raw material, and only secondarily complex habitats for thousands of species, which is the way modern forestry currently treats them. Completely the opposite, in fact.”

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Woolly by Ben Mezrich


Author: Ben Mezrich
Title: Woolly: The True Story of the Quest to Revive One of History’s Most Iconic Extinct Creatures 
Narrator: Ben Mezrich with epilogue read by George Church and afterward by Stewart Brand
Publication Info: New York : Atria Books, 2017.
Summary/Review:

This book at heart is a biography of George M. Church, a Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School, who was a key part of the Human Genome Project.  The every curious and somewhat eccentric Church is currently working on a project to clone and de-extinct the wooly mammoth.  Besides being awesome, there’s good reason to do this as the effect megafauna have on their habit can actually combat climate change by helping to lock in the permafrost.

Mezrich details Church’s childhood and rise to prominence in scientific research.  A long section of the book details his romance with molecular biologist Ting Wu and how their marriage caused a Harvard administrator to discriminate against her getting a tenured position (its odd after this story that Ting doesn’t play much of a role in the rest of the book).

The bulk of the book focuses on the effort to create a mammoth, which seems oddly possible and unlikely at the same time. There arehumorous stories like the one where one of Church’s team attempting to get an elephant placenta in order to find elephant stem cells. Unrelated to Church’s story there’s a Russian scientist seeking mammoth remains in the Siberian tundra and a Korean scientist seeking redemption who are also interested in cloning a mammoth.

All in all, this book is incomplete, because mammoths have not been successfully cloned and it may be decades, if ever, before it happens.  The science of genetics and the biology of mammoths – and there surviving relatives, the elephants – are all very interesting.  Did you know that elephants don’t get cancer?  But it feels like Mezrich is adding lots of details to the narrative to fill it out and give it some drama that’s just not there.
:
Recommended books: Where the Wild Things Were: Life, Death, and Ecological Wreckage in a Land of Vanishing Predators by William Stolzenburg
Rating: ***

Podcasts of the Week Ending January 26


More Perfect (via RadioLab) :: Sex Appeal

How Ruth Bader Ginsburg convinced the Supreme Court to take on discrimination against women, by taking a case involving discrimination against men.

On the Media :: Rethinking MLK Day

The downside of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy in the African-American is how his idea of masculinity is used against women and anyone who doesn’t fit into the perception of respectability.

Hidden Brain :: How Science Spreads: Smallpox, Stomach Ulcers, And ‘The Vegetable Lamb Of Tartary’

This episode focuses on the way in which scientific ideas spread and how they are accepted within communities.  It focuses on the dissemination of misinformation, but also how it is a necessity that we accept scientific ideas without having individually tested them.  I was particularly intrigued to learn about Mary Wortley Montagu, who spread the idea of smallpox inoculation in 18th century England, around the same time Cotton Mather was doing so in Boston.  Rather unfairly, I hadn’t heard her story before.


Running tally of Podcast of the Week appearances:

Podcasts of the Week Ending November 3


Household Name :: Sears: There Was More For Your Life

The story of the demise of the legendary store, Sears.  Turns out it is owned by an Ayn Rand devotee whose investments make a profit when stores close.  Go figure!

Smithsonian Sidedoor :: Seriously Seeking Sasquatch

You won’t find anything about Sasquatch, a.k.a. Bigfoot, at the Smithsonian museums, but you will find the skeleton a scientist who dedicated his life to researching Bigfoot. Find out why in this podcast.

30 for 30 :: Six Who Sat

The story of the women who fought for equality to participate in running events in the 1970s.

Twenty Thousand Hertz :: Theater of the Mind

The history of radio dramas from the War of the Worlds to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy to NPR’s foray into adapting Star Wars.

 

Podcasts of the Week Ending July 28


Hit Parade :: The Feat. Don’t Fail Me Now Edition

The history of the “featured artist” credit on number one singles.

To The Best of Our Knowledge :: Jeff Kripal at the Edge of Belief

Unconventional thoughts about religion, science, and the paranormal.  Not that I necessarily endorse this, but it’s interesting to hear something outside of the typical.

Back Story :: Elementary, Mr. President

Robert Bork, Benjamin Spock, and Sherlock Holmes and their ties to American history.

Planet Money :: Yes in My Backyard

The radical and controversial solution to America’s housing crisis: building new housing in existing neighborhoods!

Movie Review:Decoding Desire (2014) #atozchallenge


This is my entry for “D” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Some other “D” documentaries I’ve reviewed are Dark DaysThe Day the Series StoppedThe Day the Series StoppedDolphinsand Don’t You Forget About Me.

Title: Decoding Desire
Release Date: 2014
Director: Ryszard Hunka
Production Company: Merit Motion Pictures
Summary/Review:

This short documentary made for The Nature of Things on CBC investigates the science behind sexuality and sexual attraction in animals and how this relates to human sexuality.  A key takeaway – and one obvious to anyone who gives it a moment of thought – is that the traditional understanding of sexual desire is biased by men who didn’t try to understand female sexuality in humans or other animals.  In addition to the typical interviews with experts and film of various animals getting it on, the documentary is peppered with humorous animated segments.

What Can One Learn From Watching This Documentary:

Like many documentaries, Decoding Desire is a basic introduction to a complex questions and asks more questions than it answers. But they are big questions right up to trying to understand the reality of love.

Source: I watched this movie on Netflix streaming.

If You Like This You Might Also Want To …: 

Reading Out of Our Minds might give you a more expansive look into understanding human consciousness. Meanwhile, Thumbs, Toes, and Tears explores traits believed to be unique to humans, including kissing.  The Botany of Desire provides a plant’s perspective on desire and the relationship with humans.

Rating: **1/2

TV Review: NOVA: Iceman Reborn (2016)


TitleNOVA: Iceman Reborn
Release Date: 17 February 2016
Director: Bonnie Brennan
Production Company: A NOVA Production by Bsquared Media for WGBH Boston in association with ARTE France
Summary/Review:

Ötzi, the 5000 year old mummy found frozen in ice in the mountains along the border of Italy and Austria, is a source of continual fascination.  I was lucky enough to visit his resting place at the  South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology during my honeymoon in 2005. This documentary focuses primarily on artist Gary Staab getting unprecedented access to the mummy and using 3D printing to create a sculpted duplicate of Ötzi for researchers and students to learn from.  In-between scenes of the sculpture’s creation, scientists offer insights into Ötzi’s last meal, his role in society, his many tattoos (possibly related to a prehistoric healing method), and a genetic analysis that shows him most closely related to Sardinians.  There’s even evidence that he suffered from Lyme disease.  There’s a lot to learn from Ötzi and it appears that he will continue to offer insights into the human past.

Rating: ***

Podcasts of the Week Ending December 2


The Story Collider :: The Bats and the Bees

A reluctant field researcher finds purpose in showing drunk 17-year-olds how to tag bats with microchips, and a bee researcher who is allergic to bees.  Science!

Radiolab :: Stereothreat

Research into the effects of negative stereotypes and the difficulty of replicating that research.

Hit Parade :: The Queen of Disco Edition

Things I learned about Boston’s own Donna Summer: 1. she got her start in the Munich production of Hair where she became fluent in German, 2. she wrote or co-wrote most of her songs, 3. she and her producers basically invented electronic dance music, and 4. she continued to have club hits into the 2010s.

Afropop Worldwide :: A Brief History of Funk

A brief but beautiful story of funk with many funky classics and interviews with Bobby Byrd and George Clinton.

Slow Burn: A Podcast About Watergate

A new podcast that tells the story of the Watergate scandal with an as-it’s-happening approach focusing on long-forgotten key players in the scandal.

30 for 30 Podcasts :: The Lights of Wrigleyville

The story of the contentious battle between theChicago Cubs and their residential neighbors to install lights in Wrigley Field in the 1980s.

More Perfect :: Mr. Graham and the Reasonable Man

The story of a legal case that underlies our current crises in policing in America, and the legal fiction of the “Reasonable Man.”

Podcasts of the Week Ending November 18


Radiolab :: Match Made in Marrow

A story about how faith and science are in conflict, but how people who disagree can come together in dialogue (and still disagree).

Twenty Thousand Hertz :: Disney Parks

An overlooked aspect of the Disney theme park experience: sound design.

30 for 30 Podcasts :: Hoodies Up

Trayvon Martin was murdered during a broadcast of the NBA All-Star Game.  Five weeks later, his hometown team the Miami Heat posed for a photo with their hoodies up.  This is the story of that photo and the rebirth of athlete activism.

WBUR News :: An ‘Underground World’: This Urban Tent Community Is Dangerous For Heroin Users

A scene from the opiod crisis with a visit to a hidden tent community in the Boston region.

Fresh Air :: Priest Responds To Gang Members’ ‘Lethal Absence Of Hope’ With Jobs, And Love

An interview with Father Gregory Boyle of Homeboy Industries and how to care for children in gangs.  You can also read my review of his book Tattoos on the Heart.

#TryPod Day 4: The Story Collider


All this month, I’ve heard about the campaign to spread the news of podcasts called TryPod.  As I am a voracious listener of podcasts (you can see the complete list of my current subscriptions and other recommendations on my podcast page), I figured I ought to participate while I can.  So I will post about one of my favorite podcasts every day for the last 9 days of March.

The Story Collider allows scientists to tell the personal stories of their research, discoveries, and personal journeys in a way that allows them to share scientific knowledge with a novice audience as well as give a human face to scientific researchers.  It’s a great project to bridge scientists with the general public, and there are some spectacular stories.

Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Rochelle Williams: “Potential”
  • Daniel Engber: “Distracting Mark Cuban”
  • Meghan Groome: “Being Brave About Sex-Ed”
  • Layne Jackson Hubbard: “Still Myself”