On Carrots And Plastic

winter vegetables

Dear Fellow Root Vegetable Lovers, Vegan Friends and Food Science Colleagues,

A friend of mine emailed me a link to an article that had captured her attention in the Norwegian press, and whose title translates as “Stressed Carrots Taste Worse”. I’m really glad she did, because it made me aware of a terrible carrot storing habit I had to this day. I realize that it was, respectively, an offense to your delicate taste buds, a crude lack of respect for your lifestyle, and a poor recognition of your hard work. Thus to all of you, I apologize.

All these years I have thought I could teach my grandma to suck eggs – or as it happens, to store carrots – and I was so wrong. My grandma, by the way, would have stored her carrots in the root cellar in a container full of sand, but as the article points out, today, luckily, we don’t need sand anymore: we have plastic.

Plastic. That’s were the shoe pinches. I confess that I have repeatedly lost my temper in front of all this plastic. I have savagely ripped these plastics bags, furiously thrown away these plastic baskets and called them “stupidly redundant” as I emptied carrots in the vegetable compartment of my fridge. I have wished I could teleport myself to the farmer’s market Place des Lices and have a bunch of sandy carrots dropped off straight into my reusable bag.

I wonder how I can have been so arrogant as to ignore that this plastic packaging, though “perhaps not very environmentally friendly”, was carefully designed to provide me with the healthiest, tastiest carrots? Now it all becomes clear. Of course the plastic basket protected my carrots from chocks during transport. And how can I have failed to notice that the plastic bags had perfectly calibrated holes to provide my carrots with the right amount of oxygen?

Now perhaps we should all just pause for a minute and wonder what exactly was wrong with our Grandmas’ root cellars. I am absolutely sure that conducting research on vegetation stress is very interesting and fruitful from a biological point of view. But I can’t help to think that this whole carrot and plastic story has a bit of a bitter aftertaste, and that this is what happens when one demands that research imperatively yields practical applications.

As a scientist and root vegetable lover, all this makes me, in fact, a little sad.

Take care and eat well,


PS: Did you know that carrot greens make a delicious soup? Here is my recipe.

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On Spring Cleaning And Carbon Dioxide

spring cleaning

One fine day the snow is gone and it is spring. This year, its seems alarmingly early.

What I love most about living in Scandinavia is the sharp contrast between seasons. It took me a little time to adjust to the pace. Sometimes, after four years, I still get caught by surprise. I forget how fast the scenery changes every single week. Gradually, I’m learning to listen to this perpetual reminder from nature: seize the moment, now, seize the moment. It touches me so deeply. The sense of time passing. The rhythm. The cycles.

I moved to Scandinavia on a particularly snowy winter. Here I was, in the North, where I wanted to be. I felt like the luckiest person on earth. Shortly after my arrival, I traveled to the mountains to attend a two weeks winter school. When I came back, the snow was gone, and I discovered with pleasure that the yard in front of my building had a lovely little grass patch.

Once again, I had felt this lump in my throat, this being-out-of-step feeling that accompanied me to every scientific meeting I went to. This time it was mixed with guilt. I felt it wasn’t right to be feeling out of place when I was given a chance to spend two weeks listening to great lectures, in a fancy hotel were I was served excellent food and wine every day. And there was the good salary, the tax exemption, and the chance to live in a beautiful residential area right next to the campus where I was working as a research postdoc.

Every spring, dumpsters appeared in my neighborhood, neatly aligned in the parking lots. From my kitchen window I could witness an endless procession of cars with trailers filled with stuff that people busied themselves throwing into the quickly growing pile. Kids were climbing on it, playing there, occasionally pulling out a toy in perfect condition. I might sound dangerous or unhealthy, but really it wasn’t. I can assure you that there was no risk to find a rusty nail in those dumpsters. There was almost nothing in there that was fit for the bin. It was just stuff that people didn’t want anymore. I personally remember saving a beautiful and, though a bit thirsty, perfectly alive houseplant and a couple a terracotta flower pots in which I grew basil on my balcony for two years.

Even though “applications to carbon dioxide capture and sequestration” clearly appeared on my job description, I had not given it much attention. Being a physicist and not a geologist, it wasn’t directly in my area of expertise, and I didn’t know much about it. Not only did I have no particular interest in it, but I spontaneously tended to think it was a bad idea. I still do. And most importantly, I was interested in doing basic research. I didn’t care what pretext the funding agency needed to hear this time to deign giving us some money.

As soon as a dumpster got filed, it was taken away and replaced by an empty one. On dugnad day I found myself raking leaves with my neighbors, putting them in big plastic bags and throwing them in together with outgrown children bikes. I was astonished to see that the rakes went in the dumpster, too, when we had finished.

I saw my colleagues get married, get well-paid jobs, have kids, buy apartments in nice neighborhoods. I saw young couples throwing perfectly usable Ikea furniture into these dumpsters. Buy new stuff. Throw old stuff away. It seemed to be the logical, unavoidable path. Upgrading. Taking long-distance fights to conferences at the other end of the world and short distance ones for one day meetings at the other end of the country.

I was asked to attend a seminar at the funding agency. It became very clear to me that they took carbon dioxide capture and sequestration very seriously. Their argument was that “people” would not change their lifestyle quickly enough to allow carbon emissions to drop as fast as they should to limit global warming.

“People”. How ironic.


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On Lab Journals And Craft Journals

ford model T cut paper and watercolors illustration

I have a pile of red, soft cover spiral notebooks I bought at the beginning of my postdoc. The first ones became lab journals, and now I’m using the rest of the pile as scrap-, sketch-, and whatever-notes-I-need-to-take- books. I could just have grabbed notebooks in the supplies cabinet of the Physics Department, but I was rather specific about how I wanted my lab journal. I wanted spirals so I could open it full, fold it back and stack it on the corner of a lab bench, occasionaly tearing out any pages I wanted to get rid off. I wanted it to be my very own. And I really liked the red covers.

When I was first explained what a lab journal was as a young student, I felt invested of a very serious mission. The progress of Science was basically lying on my shoulders. I was responsible for writing down everything anyone would need to reproduce a successful experiment. Later I learned that writing something that would still make sense to me after a few years was a much more reasonable goal.

I secretly delighted in carefully trimming and gluing plots and tables here and there on the pages of my precious notebook, a craft I undeniably excelled in in elementary school but had been deprived of as more and more ring binders appeared in my aging student gear. I used the good old fountain pen I was carrying along in my pencil case since high school. People would be impressed. “Is this your lab journal? Whoa! It’s spotless!”.

It was. Nice and clean. No crossing-outs. But besides my beautiful handwriting, undeniable talent for page layout (and shameless use of erasable ink), I guess it also had to do with the fact that I kept trial and error stuff on additional lose pages of scrap paper. I felt that I had to keep these separate because I didn’t trust that I would be able to discriminate established facts from guesses I had made when I would come back to the notes I made a few months earlier. I guess I also naively thought that my lab journals would eventually be passed on to and used by the next student working the same experimental setup, so that I should refrain from cluttering them with my personal ramblings.

It was a bad idea, because I’m sure that to some extent, it simply prevented these ramblings to even happen, and the process of research is largely about these ramblings. So, as a postdoc I finally started allowing myself to write down everything that came to my mind with whatever pen happened to be available. I used carelessly teared tape instead of glue and crossed out whole sentences without scruples, trying to let the ramblings happen. But it quickly became clear that virtually no one had any interest in them until they could be turned into something that sounded publishable, as very often opposed, I felt, to genuinely interesting. The pitiful state of my neglected lab journal reflected my own state of mind: I felt lost, bored and frustrated.

Around the time I had made up my mind to leave academia after the end of my postdoc, we had our annual group meeting. Besides the appointment of volunteers to organize the Christmas party, “a new routine for lab journals” was on the agenda. Our university, following the popular European tendency and ensuring compliance with the nowadays popular paradigm of intellectual property, had decided to set up a strict lab journal policy that involved distributing and keeping track of calibrated, institution-owned notebooks in which we, researchers, were responsible for writing down everything we did in predefined boxes: date, title of the experiment, description of the procedure and results, signature, signature of a witness. Everything you wrote in here became the property of the university, and everything you had to write had to be written in there. If you were allowed to keep a copy of your notes when leaving the institution, the original notebook had to be handed out for archiving.

Everyone agreed that such a rigid procedure was completely disconnected from the reality of the researcher’s work. But the protests were only about the form. Some found it obsolete to have a paper journal when they were usually keeping all their notes electronically. Even the paper lovers like me unanimously found the dimensions of the book and its rigid cover very unpractical. And of course the exigence of having every single page countersigned by “a witness who understood the content” made everyone roll their eyes in exasperation.

But we didn’t talk about the intellectual property thing and its meaning for the future of fundamental research. “You know, this is how it is, now”, our group leader said. “We have to follow the new rule”.

So I was left with these extra red, soft cover spiral notebooks and now I use them to record my new creative endeavors. I’m gradually realizing that they are truly mine. I do hope I can still understand these sock-knitting instructions in a few months.

I think that applying a vision of intellectual property in which knowledge is a good with an economical value to what academic research produces is wrong for many reasons. First, any honest researcher knows that it its extremely tricky to attribute a research result to a single person, a single research group or a single institution. Second, this process slows down the diffusion of knowledge to a wide audience, who incidentally also often coincides with the tax payers who funded the research. And third, it promotes the harmful idea that research is only about results.

It reminds me of book by French writer Daniel Pennac called Comme Un Roman, an essay about reading. Pennac starts by pointing out that the verb “read”, just as “love” or “dream”, doesn’t make any sense used in the imperative form. Well, the same could be said for any creative endeavour. And in my opinion, it applies to research, too. I don’t think you get the best out of researchers by ordering them to find, find, find.

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