In the good old days of the late 18th Century in England it was considered the height of scientific enquiry for a polymath cleric to put a mouse in a bell jar to demonstrate that animals could be sustained by the dephlogisticated air – oxygen – conveniently released by plants during the then unnamed-and-even-now-not-entirely-understood process of photosynthesis. Nowadays, however, that is not enough. With the lay public’s assumed obsession with ‘celebrity’ and ‘reality’ television, we need a real live human being-type person for this sort of stunt. And not just anybody, but a Scientist! Or such seems to be the thinking behind the latest headline-grabbing activity at the UK’s Eden Project (sited in a former clay quarry complex in the would-be break-away Republic of the countyof Cornwall). In this graphic demonstration of the power of plants to sustain animal life, British TV’s Iain Stewart (former child actor and academic geologist) was sealed in a 6 m (or 8 m depending on news source!) × 2 m × 2.5 m airtight chamber for 48 hours with only a group of plants (admittedly, reasonably photosynthetically efficient ones such as C4 species…) as an oxygen source. Fortunately, somebody left the lights on (throughout the whole two days, so goodness knows what the carbon footprint of this ‘experiment’ was!). You’ll no doubt be pleased to discover that Iain survived his ‘ordeal’. The event was filmed for inclusion in a new BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) Two series, ‘How Plants Made The World’, which may be broadcast in 2012. When not putting his life in the hands of bananas, miscanthus, maize, etc, Iain is Professor of Geoscience Communication at the University of Plymouth, a job title that could have been made for him. The activity raises many questions, but my main one is: why couldn’t we find a BOTANIST prepared to put his money where his stoma is…? Still, as long as this helps to promote our reliance on the plant kingdom and our need for more plant biologists, it’s as well someone volunteered, however shy and publicity-averse they may be.
Prof. in a box
I am a botanist and former Senior Lecturer in Botany at Bath Spa University (Bath, near Bristol, UK). As News Editor for the Annals of Botany I contributed the monthly Plant Cuttings column to that august international botanical organ - and to Botany One - for almost 10 years. I am now a freelance plant science communicator and Visiting Research Fellow at Bath Spa University. I continue to share my Cuttingsesque items - and appraisals of books with a plant focus - with a plant-curious audience. In that guise my main goal is to inform (hopefully, in an educational, and entertaining way) others about plants and plant-people interactions, and thereby improve humankind's botanical literacy. Happy to be contacted to discuss potential writing - or talking - projects and opportunities.