Encyclopedia Britannica, 9th edn, vol. 1, 1875.
Home » Plants… chickens… children…

Plants… chickens… children…

Are plants better at maths than humans?

Encyclopedia Britannica, 9th edn, vol. 1, 1875.
Encyclopedia Britannica, 9th edn, vol. 1, 1875.

No, this post is not an animate version of ‘rock, paper, scissors’, but please bear with me… It’s an age-old question: how do plants survive the metabolic demands of the long, dark night of the cell where there is no light for photosynthesis and production of energy-rich ‘food’? Well, they can use photosynthates – such as starch – built up during the lit periods. OK, but how do they ensure that those reserves are not depleted before they can photosynthesise more?

To avoid this scenario, Antonio Scialdone et al. have shown that plants – well, our old friend arabidopsis anyway – performs ‘arithmetic division to prevent starvation at night’. ‘During the night, mechanisms inside the leaf measure the size of the starch store and estimate the length of time until dawn. Information about time comes from an internal clock, similar to our own body clock. The size of the starch store is then divided by the length of time until dawn to set the correct rate of starch consumption, so that, by dawn, around 95% of starch is used up’. Inevitably, there are detractors who say this is not intelligence or mathematical ability because plants do this without ‘thinking’. To which one must say: Wow! To do such complicated sums without even thinking about it!? How clever is that! Impressive? Yes, but even more so – surely? – is plants (and that’s all plants, not just arabidopsis!) ‘doing’ quantum physics during the wonderful process of photosynthesis.  Well, that’s what Richard Hildner et al. have demonstrated with their identification of  ‘ultrafast quantum coherent energy transfer within individual antenna complexes of a purple bacterium [as a proxy for photosynthesis in plants…] under physiological conditions’. Or, as the article’s Editor’s summary enlighteningly puts it, the team ‘observed coherence – prolonged persistence of a quantum mechanical phase relationship – at the single-molecule level in light-harvesting complexes from purple bacteria’. Sounds complicated? Yep, and consequently sure seems like quantum physics to me. Clearly, a plant must therefore be regarded as the real ‘quantum of Sol’,  ace!

Finally (you knew we’d get there eventually…): there’s been lively debate about the subject of ‘plant intelligence’, but I think the above items have settled the question once and for all. Thus: since chickens are smarter than young children (as a proxy for people generally), and plants are far cleverer than chickens (how many chickens can do quantum  physics???), plants must be more intelligent than people. QED!

[Ed. – and to infuriate people even more/put the cat amongst the pigeons/chickens, why not read about intelligent plants at Elaine Dewar’s blog entitled, Shh . . . the plants are thinking?]

Nigel Chaffey

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 international plant science journal for almost 10 years. As a freelance plant science communicator I continue to share my Cuttingsesque items - and appraisals of books with a plant focus - with a plant-curious audience at Plant Cuttings [https://plantcuttings.uk] (and formerly at Botany One [https://botany.one/author/nigelchaffey/]). 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. I'm happy to be contacted to discuss potential writing - or talking - projects and opportunities.
[ORCID: 0000-0002-4231-9082]

Read this in your language

The Week in Botany

On Monday mornings we send out a newsletter of the links that have been catching the attention of our readers on Twitter and beyond. You can sign up to receive it below.

@BotanyOne on Mastodon

Loading Mastodon feed...