Scientist tells us ‘What a Plant Knows’

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Editor’s note: The 11th annual Brattleboro Literary Festival gets under way on Friday. Visit, for authors, reading times and venues. The review below is part of a series of reviews of books by authors who will be attending the 2012 Brattleboro Literary Festival.

"What A Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses of Your Garden -- and Beyond"

By Daniel Chamovitz

What I’m looking forward to at this year’s Literary Festival is "What A Plant Knows," by Daniel Chamovitz, a former student of mine. Danny has one of those genuinely curious and generous minds, as evidenced in this wonderful work of non-fiction that’s both informative and delightful.

Chamovitz is a plant biologist at Tel Aviv University, where he’s director of the Manna Center for Plant Biosciences and where he teaches, among other classes, "Scientific Writing in English for the PhD Student." His writing is clear, his storytelling delightful, and his desire to educate infectious. All these attributes combine in "What a Plant Knows" to educate the general reading public about the intellectual history of botany, evolution and genetics, which Chamovitz makes not just comprehensible, but meaningful.

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"What A Plant Knows" explains that even though there isn’t a one-to-one correspondence between plants and animals, plants are nevertheless able to sense light, odor, touch, and where they are in the world (proprioception). They even have a kind of memory. Each chapter of the book is devoted to these senses, and each chapter makes clear correspondences between the plant world and the human one.

Understanding how plants detect light, it turns out, also teaches us how light effects humans. Plants, for instance, can determine the length of darkness and differentiate between the red and blue hues of dawn and dusk. Like humans, plants have a circadian rhythm, regulated by blue-light receptors called cryptochromes, found in both plants and animals. When cryptochrome absorbs blue light, it sends a signal indicating daylight. Plants, of course, depend on daylight for photosynthesis. But humans respond to daylight, too, and our circadian rhythms are upset when we jet across time zones. Jet lag, it turns out, results from a change in our body’s perception of daytime. Resetting it takes a few days, and resolves faster by spending time outdoors in the natural daylight of the new time zone.

In addition to learning about how plants detect odor and movement -- the "skills" plants use to survive and thrive -- "What a Plant Knows" is also an education in how contemporary science is practiced around the world. Chamovitz doesn’t just explain how plants know what they know, he also tells the stories of how we humans discover this knowledge. These stories are filled with cross-pollination between scientists in labs across the world. Scientists routinely challenge and corroborate each other’s discoveries of plant behavior, a study that has revealed important, general principals about cellular science. Studying botany has also led to new understanding of particular chemicals -- knowledge that has wide implications and applications to human behavior across the spectrum of human knowledge, from agriculture to medicine to the environment.

There’s another story here, too: the story of a remedial writing student at Columbia College who has evolved into a man who now says that his success as a scientist is due as much to his writing skills as it is to any scientific achievements. Danny will be talking about "What A Plant Knows" at 2:30 p.m., on Saturday at the Hooker-Dunham Theater. See you there.

Deborah Lee Luskin is the author of the award-winning novel, "Into the Wilderness." She lives in Williamsville. For more information, visit


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