Science and the writer

When I say that I used to work in science, some people assume that I Must Know Everything. Wouldn’t that be nice? Instead, I feel the opposite is true. When I write about astronomy, chemistry and physics, either here or elsewhere, those are my study notes. I might know a little bit more than what’s written, but not terribly much. I was never an astronomist, a mathematician or a physiologist.

At its root, science is not knowledge; it’s a state of mind. Being a scientist means acknowledging what you don’t know and taking reproducible steps to acquire that knowledge. And the more you learn, the less you know. Because there is so much to know, it’s impossible to know, or remember, everything.

I left science about ten years ago, but recently, through writing Science Fiction, I’ve re-acquainted myself with science. And, hey, science and I are still talking. This is the first part of a series of posts about science and the writer.

Where did it all begin for me? Well, I worked in population ecology.

Aha.

Ecology is one of those buzzwords that goes with global warming, recycling and sustainability, right?

Well, really, you couldn’t be more wrong.

As any ecologist will tell you, ecology is the science of numbers. Numbers of individuals doing thing A, numbers of individuals doing thing B. Poking the population with a sharp stick, watching what happens and re-counting those numbers, and then trying to make sense of the difference. The tools of the trade of a plant ecologist are a sturdy 4WD vehicle, a quadrat (a metal frame of a certain dimension, usually 50x100cm), a piece of cloth to pick up said quadrat (you won’t believe how hot it gets in 40C heat), a palmtop computer (to record numbers), a 50m tape measure, coloured plastic tags (to stick in ground so you can come back to the same spot a few months later), and a carton of beer (remember the heat?). Tools that are very useful for an ecologist working in inland Australia are long stick (for bashing covers over our weather station controls to scare snakes away before opening said covers), a GPS, sock protectors (you won’t believe what speargrass seeds get up to), and a six-seater aircraft. You get the gist. Do not apply if you love your lattes and are scared of spiders, or flying in small aircraft.

Back in the lab (which we called lab, but was really more office than lab), we had computers to download our counts, and heavy-duty statistics programs to do calculations.

Counting and statistics. I guess my alter ego could find a job at the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
So what did we count?

Plants.

Let me explain a bit more about the environment.

The entire northern half of Australia (and much of the south, but I never did much work south of the capricorn) is made up of soil types that manages to be deficient in almost every imaginable element required by plants to grow. Nowhere else in the world does standard plant fertiliser contain sulphur. Nowhere else in the world is plant growth stunted by lack of micro-elements as exotic as molybdenum.

It is also prime beef cattle country. Properties are huge, herd densities are as low as a few heads per square kilometre. There are few fences and graziers may see their animals as little as once a year, if at all.

Australian beef is valued, because it is clean, organic and cheap. It’s a big export. But the climate is unbelievably harsh. There may be devastating floods one year and this may be followed by years, yes years, of no rain at all. Not a single drop. Naturally, graziers are looking for ways to insure themselves against the times of drought, and to keep their animals healthier for longer so they will sell for better prices. Their options for doing so are limited. They can’t hand-feed their cattle; the scale is just too great, so the only way to improve lies in improving the land itself. But then again, if you have a property the size of a decent province in some small European country, you can’t exactly roll out the tractor and spread fertiliser either.

Enter the humble legume.

The plant family Leguminosae contains many familiar crops, such as beans, lentils and soy. Or familiar garden plants like sweet pea and bush plants such as wattles. The humble clover is a legume. So are peanuts. Or Sturt’s Desert Peas.

This plant family is unique in the plant world in that most of its members undergo a symbiosis with Rhizobium bacteria which forms little root nodules, which, when you pull up a plant, are visible as little white lumps. When you cut a nodule open, you will see a tinge of pink, like blood. Just like blood, in fact. It’s a form of haemoglobin, which helps the nodules fix nitrogen from the air. As a result, legumes produce their own fertiliser, which they pass onto the local soil when the plant dies, or pass into whichever animal eats the leaves.

Remember the chronic shortage of essential elements in Australian soil? Aha, all we need to do is increase the content of legume species in pastures.

Australia has many legume species. Unfortunately, most of them are trees (which defy the term ‘pasture’ and which grazing cattle will not eat), are unsuitable for the tropics or, worse, are poisonous.

Back in the 1950s, a number of scientists started looking at plants in similar climates in other places in the world, and identified a hotspot of interest and similarity in Brazil. Subsequently, scientists introduced a range of pasture legumes. We studied their survival, monitored their spread or otherwise. Incidentally, the main mode of spread for these species, member of the Stylosanthes genus, if you must know, is through interaction with cattle. The seeds pass unaffected through the digestive tract of cattle (not goats or sheep or kangaroos) and grow from dung. The seed pods have little hooks that make the seeds stick to fur.

I can hear a number of you cringe in the distance. Yes, that’s right. Scientists back then wilfully introduced plants into Australia and set them loose in northern Australian ecosystems. Bad, bad, bad, we say now, but it wasn’t always seen that way. The plants are still there. Unlike the cane toad, they have not gone crazy. They have made a huge contribution to the beef industry.

But.

When I entered the scene in the 1990s, the perception towards the program was already changing, even in these bastions of anti-conservationism. There were no more introductions of new plants. Our quarantine glasshouse was empty a lot of the time. We spent as much time looking at the invasion of introduced species in places where they weren’t wanted as in places they were. Moreover, my own perception was changing. I realised I was more interested in conservation. And we all know how much money there is in that. So when my part of the program was shut down, this was one of the factors that made me decide to develop my online bookshop to sell books that taught people appreciation of nature.

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5 comments on “Science and the writer

  1. So, if the soils are deficient in stuff like sulphur and molybdenum, where are the legumes getting it from? Do they pull it from the air? Or are these elements just locked up and inaccessible in Australian soils and not available to other plants until legumes turn them into accessible forms?

  2. Great post!

    THis is a very interesting and informative post. I intially thought ecology was about the interaction between systems, although now it makes much more sense to me as ‘the science of numbers’.

    • Oh, ecology is about that, too, but at its very root, it’s about numbers. How many things go this way, how many go the other way, as influenced by an external or internal factor. Because 100% change of behaviour is near-impossible.

  3. Pingback: Wednesday Writer – Novy Interviews Patty Jansen

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