If You Pick Us, Do We Not Bleed?
Understanding the plant experience helps us understand the human one, too.
By Stefany Anne Golberg
In a room near Maida Vale, a journalist for The Nation wrote around 1914, an unfortunate creature is strapped to the table of an unlicensed vivisector. When the subject is pinched with a pair of forceps, it winces. It is so strapped that its electric shudder of pain pulls the long arm of a very delicate lever that actuates a tiny mirror. This casts a beam of light on the frieze at the other end of the room, and thus enormously exaggerates the tremor of the creature. A pinch near the right-hand tube sends the beam 7 or 8 feet to the right, and a stab near the other wire sends it as far to the left.
“Thus,” the journalist concluded, “can science reveal the feelings of even so stolid a vegetable as the carrot.”
Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose, the aforementioned carrot vivisector, was a serious man of science. Born in what is today Bangladesh in 1858, Bose was a quintessential polymath: physicist, biologist, botanist, archaeologist. He was the first person from the Indian subcontinent to receive a U.S. patent, and is considered one of the fathers of radio science, alongside such notables as Tesla, Marconi, and Popov. He was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 1920, becoming the first Indian to be honored by the Royal Society in the field of science. It’s clear that Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose was a scientist of some weight. And, like many scientists of weight, he has become popularly known for his more controversial pursuits — in Bose’s case, his experiments in plant physiology.
Perhaps it was his work in radio waves and electricity that inspired Bose’s investigations into what we might call the invisible world. Bose strongly felt that physics could go far beyond what was apparent to the naked eye. Around 1900, Bose began his investigations into the secret world of plants. He found that all plants, and all parts of plants, have a sensitive nervous system not unlike that of animals, and that their responses to external stimuli could be measured and recorded. Some plant reactions can be seen easily in sensitive plants like the Mimosa, which, when irritated, will react with the sudden shedding or shrinking of its leaves. But when Bose attached his magnifying device to plants from which it was more difficult to witness a response, such as vegetables, he was astounded to discover that they, too, became excited when vexed. All around us, Bose realized, the plants are communicating. We just don’t notice it.
The more responses Bose got from his plants, the more encouraged he became, and the more detailed his efforts became. Bose discovered that an electric death spasm occurs in plants when they die, and that the actual moment of death in a plant could be accurately recorded. As Sir Patrick Geddes described in his 1920 biography of Bose, the electromotive force generated during the death spasm is sometimes considerable. Bose calculated that a half-pea, for instance, could discharge up to half a volt. Thus, if 500 pairs of boiling half-peas were arranged in series, the electric pressure would be 500 volts, enough to electrocute unsuspecting victims. The average cook does not know the danger she runs in preparing peas, Bose wrote. “It is fortunate for her that the peas are not arranged in series!”
Stefany Anne Golberg describes herself as artist, writer, musician, and professional dilettante. She’s a founding member of the arts collective Flux Factory and lives in Detroit. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.