"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."

Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
13 Electrifying Nikola Tesla Quotes
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

The greatest geek who ever lived had more than just science on the brain. While he was alive, Nikola Tesla’s advancements were frequently and famously attributed to others. But history has shown us the magnitude of his work, a sentiment best expressed by Fiorello LaGuardia’s eulogy: “Tesla is not really dead. Only his poor wasted body has been stilled. The real, the important part of Tesla lives in his achievement which is great, almost beyond calculation, an integral part of our civilization, of our daily lives.” Here are 13 electric quotes from the legendary scientist/engineer/inventor.


“... The female mind has demonstrated a capacity for all the mental acquirements and achievements of men, and as generations ensue that capacity will be expanded; the average woman will be as well educated as the average man, and then better educated, for the dormant faculties of her brain will be stimulated to an activity that will be all the more intense and powerful because of centuries of repose. Woman will ignore precedent and startle civilization with their progress.”

—From a 1926 interview by John B. Kennedy, “When Woman Is Boss"


“... The papers, which 30 years ago conferred upon me the honor of American citizenship, are always kept in a safe, while my orders, diplomas, degrees, gold medals and other distinctions are packed away in old trunks.”

—From “My Inventions V – The Magnifying Transmitter," 1919


“There is something within me that might be illusion as it is often case with young delighted people, but if I would be fortunate to achieve some of my ideals, it would be on the behalf of the whole of humanity. If those hopes would become fulfilled, the most exciting thought would be that it is a deed of a Serb.”

—From an address at the Belgrade train station, 1892


Blue Portrait of Nikola Tesla, the only painting Tesla posed for
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

"We begin to think cosmically. Our sympathetic feelers reach out into the dim distance. The bacteria of the 'Weltschmerz' are upon us. So far, however, universal harmony has been attained only in a single sphere of international relationship. That is the postal service. Its mechanism is working satisfactorily, but—how remote are we still from that scrupulous respect of the sanctity of the mail bag!"

—From “The Transmission of Electrical Energy Without Wires as a Means for Furthering Peace,” 1905


“What the result of these investigations will be the future will tell; but whatever they may be, and to whatever this principle may lead, I shall be sufficiently recompensed if later it will be admitted that I have contributed a share, however small, to the advancement of science.”

—From “The Tesla Alternate Current Motor,” 1888


“That is the trouble with many inventors; they lack patience. They lack the willingness to work a thing out slowly and clearly and sharply in their mind, so that they can actually 'feel it work.' They want to try their first idea right off; and the result is they use up lots of money and lots of good material, only to find eventually that they are working in the wrong direction. We all make mistakes, and it is better to make them before we begin.”

—From “Tesla, Man and Inventor,” 1895


“Most certainly, some planets are not inhabited, but others are, and among these there must exist life under all conditions and phases of development.”

—From “How to Signal to Mars,” 1910


"When we speak of man, we have a conception of humanity as a whole, and before applying scientific methods to the investigation of his movement, we must accept this as a physical fact. But can anyone doubt to-day that all the millions of individuals and all the innumerable types and characters constitute an entity, a unit? Though free to think and act, we are held together, like the stars in the firmament, with ties inseparable. These ties cannot be seen, but we can feel them. I cut myself in the finger, and it pains me: this finger is a part of me. I see a friend hurt, and it hurts me, too: my friend and I are one. And now I see stricken down an enemy, a lump of matter which, of all the lumps of matter in the universe, I care least for, and it still grieves me. Does this not prove that each of us is only part of a whole?"

—From “The Problem of Increasing Human Energy,” 1900


Nikola Tesla, with Rudjer Boscovich's book "Theoria Philosophiae Naturalis", in front of the spiral coil of his high-voltage Tesla coil transformer at his East Houston St., New York, laboratory.
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

“We build but to tear down. Most of our work and resource is squandered. Our onward march is marked by devastation. Everywhere there is an appalling loss of time, effort and life. A cheerless view, but true.”

—From “What Science May Achieve this Year,” 1910


“Everyone should consider his body as a priceless gift from one whom he loves above all, a marvelous work of art, of indescribable beauty, and mystery beyond human conception, and so delicate that a word, a breath, a look, nay, a thought may injure it. Uncleanliness, which breeds disease and death, is not only a self-destructive but highly immoral habit.”

—From “The Problem of Increasing Human Energy," 1900


"It will soon be possible to transmit wireless messages around the world so simply that any individual can carry and operate his own apparatus."

From Popular Mechanics via the New York Times, October 1909


"Let the future tell the truth and evaluate each one according to his work and accomplishments. The present is theirs; the future, for which I really worked, is mine."

—As quoted in Tesla: Man Out of Time, by Margaret Cheney, 2001


“Life is and will ever remain an equation incapable of solution, but it contains certain known factors.”

—From “A Machine to End War,” 1935 [PDF]

Gut Bacteria Could Be Keeping You Up at Night

The bacteria in your gut do far more than help digest food. In recent years, scientists have discovered that they play an important role in myriad bodily processes, from mood and mental health to obesity and gastrointestinal disease. According to recent research, the trillions of microbes in your gut could also impact how you sleep, The Guardian reports.

Though investigation into the links between sleep and intestinal bacteria is just beginning, scientists already know that lack of sleep takes a toll on the body beyond just causing fatigue. It may contribute to the risk of obesity and developing type 2 diabetes. However, digestive processes may themselves affect sleep, scientists now suggest. "There is no question in my mind that gut health is linked to sleep health, although we do not have the studies to prove it yet," psychologist Michael Breus told The Guardian.

A study in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience found that rats fed a prebiotic diet (consisting of fiber that gut bacteria can feed on) had better-quality sleep than rats fed a control diet. The researchers linked this better sleep to increases in the gut bacteria Lactobacillus rhamnosus, a popular probiotic strain. The rats spent more time in REM sleep even when they were subjected to stress, which has been linked to insomnia issues.

To demonstrate how the microbiome affects sleep, though, researchers will likely have to untangle it from the many other ways that the microbiome affects our health, mental and otherwise. Imbalances in gut bacteria might influence depression, which in turn disrupts sleep. Other studies have suggested that poor-quality sleep affects the microbiome, rather than the other way around. Given how much impact the microbiome has on our health, it makes sense that there could be links between major health issues like insomnia and our bacterial colonies. The nature of those links, though, will require much more research to tease out.

[h/t The Guardian]


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