Discovering the KnownPosted: November 18, 2013
See that bizarre-looking mushroom above? I discovered it in July while on a birthday hike alone through Maryland’s Patapsco Valley State Park. Its strange whiteness made it hard to miss among the yellows and browns of dead leaves and rotting wood on the forest floor.
But more importantly, I discovered it. Indian Pipe was discovered before. Hence, its common name is Indian Pipe. If I were its first discoverer, it would be known as the Maryland Chalk Stalk, or Cookies ‘n Cream, or the Martian Oreo. Probably that last one just to mess with people. But still, I discovered it.
Discovery is a funny concept and I’m not sure how to explain it, but I’ll do my damnedest to illustrate what I mean.
Last winter, when I was in Michigan visiting family for the holidays, I spent a couple hours one night shivering outdoors with my camera, tripod, and the December issue of Astronomy magazine. Using the magazine’s star chart, a compass, and some astronomical sign-posts, I aimed my zoom lens toward a smudge that I thought was maybe, just maybe, the Orion Nebula.
I could have instead visited NASA’s website to see what they have to say about the nebula, or viewed photos online from the Hubble Space Telescope. After all, why bother taking a low-quality amateur’s photo without even the use of a telescope?
To see for myself. To understand the process and the night sky. To challenge my photographic skills. To learn something, anything. In other words, lots of reasons.
Here’s the photo I ended up with:
I love that photo. I don’t care that the subject is pixelated and barely identifiable. I love it because I found the thing l was looking for, and because I was there and took the picture myself.
Now and then I wonder if the activity of discovery has grown beyond the reach of common people. Amateurs certainly discover things such as comets, supernovae, and new creatures, living or extinct. But discoveries by amateurs are so unusual that they make the evening news. And really, who among the non-doctorate crowd has access to big, expensive, cutting-edge equipment to parse apart the biggest mysteries of nature? Think the Large Hadron Collider, the Human Genome Project, or the Kepler telescope.
Hell, maybe there was never a time when the true layman could do much science. But where does this leave us mere commoners who think nature is neat and space is spectacular but who aren’t mathematically-minded or scientifically skilled? Has every field of research grown so deep that only those with a doctorate in that branch of a branch of that field can discover things? Has everything accessible already been discovered?
Don’t know, don’t care. The pleasure of discovery is not an experience exclusive to the academically elite for two reasons:
First, price. If a high-schooler wants a microscope with built-in digital camera and USB cable so as to photograph and investigate minerals or insects, the respected telescope manufacturer Celestron offers one for less than the price of the new video game Grand Theft Auto 5. So, while some equipment is prohibitively expensive, other equipment is ridiculously inexpensive and allows the layman to do real work.
Second, and this makes my first reason sort of moot, you don’t have to be first to enjoy discovery.
Because I’d never before seen this mushroom called Indian Pipe, and because it was so unusual-looking for a mushroom, I spent a good 10 minutes in the low light of the forest taking dozens of photos, zooming in and out, fiddling with exposure. I had to be absolutely sure I had a good shot so that when I got home I could look it up, get its name, and find out what its deal was.
Yes, I said plant. I was just messing with you when I repeatedly said it was a mushroom. I wanted the reader to have a chance to enjoy the surprise I felt upon discovering it’s not a mushroom, or any kind of fungus. Its taxonomical name is monotropa uniflora and, in addition to the common name Indian Pipe, is also known as ghost plant or corpse plant. Look again.
But wait a sec. Plants are photosynthetic, meaning that light from the sun interacts with their chlorophyll allowing them to produce energy, right? And the chlorophyll is what makes them green. So if it’s not green, it must not have chlorophyll and couldn’t possibly be photosynthetic. So, is it really a plant?
Yeah, it’s really a plant and even has flowers. Discovery is awesome.
While working on the Maryland Biodiversity Project article, I interviewed Wes Knapp, a botanist for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Wes works in the department’s Wildlife Heritage Service, which is tasked with ranking the rarity of Maryland’s species. He is a self-proclaimed plant nerd, so last week I bugged him with some questions about Indian Pipe.
“Anytime someone gets fired up about a native plant, I’m happy to talk about it,” he said. But what’s the deal with Indian Pipe? I thought chlorophyll and photosynthesis were the cornerstone of what makes a plant a plant. “That’s correct 99 percent of the time,” Wes said. “This is one of the weird ones.”
Indian Pipe is a parasite that it lives on fungus in the soil among root bark, Wes said. The fungus helps Indian Pipe take in water and make food. “This plant doesn’t make any energy itself,” he said.
To my surprise, Indian Pipe is common in Maryland. But it’s still weird, and fun.
Earth is home to hundreds of plant families, so one would think that Indian Pipe probably wouldn’t be in the same family as rhododendrons, but Wes said it is. The family name is Heath, and another of its members is the blueberry.
Wes and I got chatting about what makes a plant a plant and a fungus a fungus, and then he told me something I would never have guessed. “Fungus are actually more closely related to animals than they are to plants,” he said. Fungus even have swimming sperm, just like animals, he said.
It gets funny if you think of it this way: Humans and plants have a common ancestor. When we branched away from plants, fungus were still on our branch, not on that of plants. That’s not to say humans are closely related to fungus, Wes said. “They’re their own thing — they’re not animals,” he said. “But they’re still closer to animals than to plants.”
We were about to get off the phone but, as usual during interviews, I tripped over my own curiosity. After all, I was talking to a botanist and I had a personal question. I happen to be acutely allergic to both poison ivy and mangos. I asked Wes if they were related. Wes checked some reference books and said they are. “The cashew family,” he said.
Wait. Like, the nut? Yes, he said.
“How far down the rabbit hole do you want to go?” Wes said. He laughed.
So what happened? I found a plant that didn’t look like a plant. I searched to find what it was. I talked to an expert and found out a bunch of other stuff that’s insane. And I loved it. I discovered nothing for humanity, but I discovered something for myself. It was fun, stimulating, engaging.
So, Wes is a scientist and I’m not, but he still enjoys the same discovery process that I do. Now and then, while in the field, he encounters a species he’s only seen in books, and he geeks out about identifying it. “There’s an excitement about finding out what that is,” he said.
My loose interpretation of discovery is not, by any stretch, hard science. But the eureka moment still tastes amazing.
So next summer, when the perennial white plant once again pushes through the forest floor in Patapsco Valley State Park, I’ll go looking for it. I need to see it again. I need a closer look. I want to discover it over and over, and it’ll probably be exciting every time.