Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Sticking Science up my Nose

Posted by Kirk Mona

I like to avoid sticking things up my nose. I find it is a good rule for a happy life. I wasn't the kind of kid who stuck crayons or pennies in my nose and I haven't sniffed up any drugs, legal or otherwise. I did once squirt a shot of Binaca fresh breath spray up my nose on a dare in high school but we all do stupid things once in a while, and for the record, yes, it does hurt.

I bring all this up because I think it is high time I stick something up my nose. I'd like to stick something up my nose for science. As a naturalist, I teach science and that means I take a lot of things on other scientists' word. This is what we have to do on a daily basis because we cannot possibly recreate all of the innumerable tests and experiments that have brought our greater knowledge thus far. Scientists, however, do test each other and repeat experiments and over time they weed out poor hypothesis by proving them false. Laymen don't have time to do this in their daily lives and luckily don’t need to because that is what scientists do. This isn't so much a matter of faith but rather understanding how and why the scientific method works. I am a naturalist though and I teach science all the time. While some of my knowledge comes from reading the latest scientific journals, some also comes from mentors and the elders of my field who have passed on their knowledge. What if some of this inherited knowledge is wrong?

Every year in late summer I bring a group out to the meadow at the Lee & Rose Warner Nature Center and when the group sees the glowing golden sea of goldenrod flowers often a fellow traveler well versed in the histamine self torture arts exclaims, “Ohh, goldenrod! I am soooo allergic to that stuff.”

I am no stranger to allergies and when August comes I suffer with the rest of the sorry lot of humans with out-of-control histamine responses. No mater how much brain power I allocate to assuring my body that pollen is not a deadly substance designed to destroy the core of my being it does no good. My body goes on the defense and I pay the cost of itchy, runny, blurry eyes and a runny nose. Being a naturalist, I teach outdoors and it can be difficult to teach about the outdoors when one cannot actually see the outdoors.

Goldenrod provides the perfect opportunity to test both my trust in the scientific process and my knowledge of plants. I’m going to stick goldenrod up my nose.
Even though thousands of people think of goldenrod as the scourge of the season, I've been taught and I actively teach otherwise. If you watch goldenrod you'll soon notice lots of insects all over the bright blooms. In fact, those blooms are the bright color they are precisely to attract insects. This is a clue to us about the pollination techniques used by the plant. Goldenrod is insect pollinated. For goldenrod to reproduce, pollen must get from one plant to another. This usually happens in one of two ways in flowers. Insects or wind. Pollen from insect pollinated plants is big and heavy (relatively speaking) whereas pollen from wind pollinated plants is small and light so it can be borne on the wind.

Logically, if you enter a field and begin to sneeze from pollen and you haven’t touched any plants then you are having a reaction to wind borne pollen. That pollen probably doesn’t come from any of the large showy flowers since flowers don’t have to be pretty to attract the wind. Late summer allergies are caused mostly by the wind pollinated ragweed which most people never notice as, since it need not attract insects, simply has tiny gray flowers no more than 2 millimeters across. The pollen is so light it can travel well over six hundred feet from the flower on a slight breeze.

I know all of these things but does that make them true? I need some Goldenrod. Goldenrod is a late summer bloomer. The idea of sticking it up my nose in the name of science came about last fall so I had a long time to wait. Spring saw the bloom of ephemeral wildflowers in the woods. In the summer, the prairie was full of yarrow and black-eyed susans, wild bergamot and giant hyssop that smelled and tasted just like licorice and anise. The goldenrod made me wait. On a late summer afternoon I marched out the prairie with confidence and more than a little curiosity. The goldenrod was in full bloom and I took it as a good sign that this purportedly insect pollinated flower was crawing with dozens of Chauliognathus pennsylvanicus, the Goldenrod Soldier Beetle. With a co-worker as my witness I stuck something up my nose for science. I am happy to report that goldenrod has a delightfully delicate smell and caused absolutely no allergic reaction no matter how hard I sniffed.

So it would seem we can, in fact, trust the scientific method. I'll not be repeating my experiment with ragweed.