"The Botany of Desire" Documentary, TONIGHT at 8pm on PBS

Update: the entire documentary is now available online for free!

A new PBS* documentary, The Botany of Desire, premieres Wednesday night (tonight!) at 8pm on PBS stations throughout the US. It's based on the popular Michael Pollan book of the same name, and I urge you to carve out two hours (in most markets between 8pm - 10pm) on Wednesday night to watch it. The program is packed with science, history, and beautiful photography.

I've seen the film in advance, and I highly recommend it, particularly if you're interested in any of the four plants featured in it: tulip, marijuana, potato, and apple. By telling the stories of these plants, Pollan explains how in some ways the plants are manipulating us, rather than the other way around -- in the same way that flowers "use" bees to spread their pollen, these plants have "used" humans to spread themselves across the planet and out-compete other plants. One note: the program may not be suitable for young children, as there is use of the word "sex" (as applied to plants) and discussion of marijuana. It also might be pretty boring for the under-twelve set (despite beautiful flower photography), unless they're thoroughly nerdy.

Here's a preview of the documentary:

After the jump, I include some notes on each plant discussed in the documentary.

The Apple - Good for Booze AND for Eatin'

Apples arose in Kazakhstan, where bears would eat them and, uh, deposit the seeds as they went. But when people entered the picture, we began to spread the apple and its sweetness. Thus, the "biological strategy" of apples is to increase their sweetness, causing us to spread them around the globe. Humans have an innate desire for sweetness -- presumably because in nature, sweetness is rare and generally denotes lots of calories.

Although the Bible doesn't specify the fruit that was at the heart of so much trouble in the Garden of Eden, we assume it to be an apple -- even though it was probably a pomegranate due to geographic restrictions on where apples grow best. Then there's the rather fascinating discussion of Johnny Appleseed, whose real motivation was to bring alcohol (via hard cider) to pioneers, rather than tasty sweet apples. (Follow the link for some more info, all snagged from Pollan's book, on the man -- he was surprisingly rich for a dude who wore a tin pot on his head.)


Tulips are examples of angiosperms, or flowering plants. The rise of the angiosperms brought sex (via flowers and pollen exchange) into the plant picture, and as Pollan says, "sex creates variation." The documentary thoroughly explains the Dutch speculative investment bubble known as Tulip Mania, which made tulips one of the most valuable commodities in the world. At the height of Tulip Mania, a single tulip bulb sold for the equivalent of what today would be $10-15 million! Tragically, some of the most prized tulips were made beautiful because of a virus that was slowing killing them -- which caused spectacular striped or "broken" flowers, but ultimately killed the plant. Pollan suggests that the tulip's biological "strategy" has been to develop a form of beauty that humans find very appealing, causing us to domesticate and grow it even to the point of financial ruin.


I won't say much about this section, as this is a family blog, but I can certainly say that this program treats the topic fairly and doesn't go nuts with it. There's an interesting discussion of how THC (the main "active ingredient") binds to receptors in the human brain that affect the brain's ability to remember and forget -- and Pollan wonders exactly how a plant would find a way to manipulate those human brain receptors in order to make cannabis such a widely-propagated plant today. It is a curious question, indeed -- how would a plant manage to just "happen" to have such a profound effect on humans? Again, Pollan wonders if this is a biological "strategy" in some sense.

The documentary includes extensive footage of legal (under state laws, though not federal law) cannabis growing operations -- you get an inside look into how medical marijuana is produced, and it's surprisingly complex. My favorite line: in describing how the farmers plant only female cannabis plants so they'll produce more THC-rich resin, Pollan describes the grow room as a room of "massive sexual frustration" -- all the female plants are desperately trying to catch some male pollen, producing more and more resin in their efforts.


The documentary takes us to South America, showing how the descendants of the Incas are still farming potatoes, and how potatoes traveled from South America to Europe via the Spanish Conquistadores. The potato was such a hugely productive crop (more food per acre than grain) that it transformed the Old World, enabling the industrial revolution. There's also much discussion of "The Lumper," the dominant strain of potato in Ireland that happened to be susceptible to a wind-spread fungus that destroyed Lumpers, causing the terrible Potato Famine. The famine killed one out of every eight people living in Ireland. Can you imagine that? Pollan suggests that the Potato Famine is a parable about the dangers of monoculture (planting a single type of plant) -- had the Irish planted a wider variety of potatoes, they might have had more that were resistant to the fungus that killed Lumpers.

Also discussed: how the fast food industry currently relies on a monoculture of the Russet Burbank potato to make the "long fries" used in McDonald's, to fill those tall red fry boxes; how that monoculture demands lots of pesticides; and how Monsanto is developing insect-repellant crops -- and what happens with those crops over the long term.

Full Blogger Disclosure

I have received an advance screener of this documentary from PBS, but have not been compensated in any way for this post. I just like PBS and documentaries, and think this is a great program -- and the book is highly recommended as well.

* = Note that the program is presented by KQED in San Francisco and produced by Kikim Media. But to myself and y'all, that's fancy talk for "PBS."

More Details Emerge About 'Oumuamua, Earth's First-Recorded Interstellar Visitor

In October, scientists using the University of Hawaii's Pan-STARRS 1 telescope sighted something extraordinary: Earth's first confirmed interstellar visitor. Originally called A/2017 U1, the once-mysterious object has a new name—'Oumuamua, according to Scientific American—and researchers continue to learn more about its physical properties. Now, a team from the University of Hawaii's Institute of Astronomy has published a detailed report of what they know so far in Nature.

Fittingly, "'Oumuamua" is Hawaiian for "a messenger from afar arriving first." 'Oumuamua's astronomical designation is 1I/2017 U1. The "I" in 1I/2017 stands for "interstellar." Until now, objects similar to 'Oumuamua were always given "C" and "A" names, which stand for either comet or asteroid. New observations have researchers concluding that 'Oumuamua is unusual for more than its far-flung origins.

It's a cigar-shaped object 10 times longer than it is wide, stretching to a half-mile long. It's also reddish in color, and is similar in some ways to some asteroids in our solar system, the BBC reports. But it's much faster, zipping through our system, and has a totally different orbit from any of those objects.

After initial indecision about whether the object was a comet or an asteroid, the researchers now believe it's an asteroid. Long ago, it might have hurtled from an unknown star system into our own.

'Oumuamua may provide astronomers with new insights into how stars and planets form. The 750,000 asteroids we know of are leftovers from the formation of our solar system, trapped by the Sun's gravity. But what if, billions of years ago, other objects escaped? 'Oumuamua shows us that it's possible; perhaps there are bits and pieces from the early years of our solar system currently visiting other stars.

The researchers say it's surprising that 'Oumuamua is an asteroid instead of a comet, given that in the Oort Cloud—an icy bubble of debris thought to surround our solar system—comets are predicted to outnumber asteroids 200 to 1 and perhaps even as high as 10,000 to 1. If our own solar system is any indication, it's more likely that a comet would take off before an asteroid would.

So where did 'Oumuamua come from? That's still unknown. It's possible it could've been bumped into our realm by a close encounter with a planet—either a smaller, nearby one, or a larger, farther one. If that's the case, the planet remains to be discovered. They believe it's more likely that 'Oumuamua was ejected from a young stellar system, location unknown. And yet, they write, "the possibility that 'Oumuamua has been orbiting the galaxy for billions of years cannot be ruled out."

As for where it's headed, The Atlantic's Marina Koren notes, "It will pass the orbit of Jupiter next May, then Neptune in 2022, and Pluto in 2024. By 2025, it will coast beyond the outer edge of the Kuiper Belt, a field of icy and rocky objects."

Last month, University of Wisconsin–Madison astronomer Ralf Kotulla and scientists from UCLA and the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) used the WIYN Telescope on Kitt Peak, Arizona, to take some of the first pictures of 'Oumuamua. You can check them out below.

Images of an interloper from beyond the solar system — an asteroid or a comet — were captured on Oct. 27 by the 3.5-meter WIYN Telescope on Kitt Peak, Ariz.
Images of 'Oumuamua—an asteroid or a comet—were captured on October 27.

U1 spotted whizzing through the Solar System in images taken with the WIYN telescope. The faint streaks are background stars. The green circles highlight the position of U1 in each image. In these images U1 is about 10 million times fainter than the faint
The green circles highlight the position of U1 in each image against faint streaks of background stars. In these images, U1 is about 10 million times fainter than the faintest visible stars.
R. Kotulla (University of Wisconsin) & WIYN/NOAO/AURA/NSF

Color image of U1, compiled from observations taken through filters centered at 4750A, 6250A, and 7500A.
Color image of U1.
R. Kotulla (University of Wisconsin) & WIYN/NOAO/AURA/NSF

Editor's note: This story has been updated.

Scientists Analyze the Moods of 90,000 Songs Based on Music and Lyrics

Based on the first few seconds of a song, the part before the vocalist starts singing, you can judge whether the lyrics are more likely to detail a night of partying or a devastating breakup. The fact that musical structures can evoke certain emotions just as strongly as words can isn't a secret. But scientists now have a better idea of which language gets paired with which chords, according to their paper published in Royal Society Open Science.

For their study, researchers from Indiana University downloaded 90,000 songs from Ultimate Guitar, a site that allows users to upload the lyrics and chords from popular songs for musicians to reference. Next, they pulled data from labMT, which crowd-sources the emotional valence (positive and negative connotations) of words. They referred to the music recognition site Gracenote to determine where and when each song was produced.

Their new method for analyzing the relationship between music and lyrics confirmed long-held knowledge: that minor chords are associated with sad feelings and major chords with happy ones. Words with a negative valence, like "pain," "die," and "lost," are all more likely to fall on the minor side of the spectrum.

But outside of major chords, the researchers found that high-valence words tend to show up in a surprising place: seventh chords. These chords contain four notes at a time and can be played in both the major and minor keys. The lyrics associated with these chords are positive all around, but their mood varies slightly depending on the type of seventh. Dominant seventh chords, for example, are often paired with terms of endearment, like "baby", or "sweet." With minor seventh chords, the words "life" and "god" are overrepresented.

Using their data, the researchers also looked at how lyric and chord valence differs between genres, regions, and eras. Sixties rock ranks highest in terms of positivity while punk and metal occupy the bottom slots. As for geography, Scandinavia (think Norwegian death metal) produces the dreariest music while songs from Asia (like K-Pop) are the happiest. So if you're looking for a song to boost your mood, we suggest digging up some Asian rock music from the 1960s, and make sure it's heavy on the seventh chords.


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