Plant Singers, Big Cheese

Help, Matt: My friend sings to her plants. She likes to sing anyway, but she says the carbon dioxide she emits when she sings to them helps them grow, since plants absorb carbon dioxide and give off oxygen. She’s an okay singer, I guess. I can take it for 15 minutes or so, as long as there aren’t too many high notes. So, that’s not my problem. My problem is that it drives me crazy that she really believes her carbon dioxide singing helps all her houseplants, even though she’s right, plants absorb carbon dioxide. I’ve got to develop a plan to wake her up to the truth. I’m starting by collecting facts. Of course, that means I have to write to you. I think the woman’s nuts. — Barney Fife, no, not really

Oh, man, it’s the ’70s all over again. Dippy hippies playing Mozart to their ivy, poetry to their tomatoes. Grandma had her Jethro Tull onion patch and Pink Floyd zucchini. She’d go out in her love beads and tie-dyed apron and serenade the backyard every day. But I’ve never heard any family stories about a decade of monster vegetables, so… However, we don’t think Grandma is nuts. Well, not so nuts we can’t deal with it.

But we think you’re a little nuts, believing you can shake the logic stick at a lady who’s operating in the woo-woo zone. A little out there…in a sort of adorable way. So, she’s all crazy about CO2. Well, all (photosynthetic) plants need CO2, and where do they get it? The air around them. Your friend’s little poof of gas when she sings is a drop in the atmospheric ocean compared to what’s around her in the house. And in the long line of history, plants predate people, so they can get along without us very well. Greenhouse gardeners in cold climes shoot CO2 onto their plants in winter when ventilation is restricted. Otherwise they’d harvest funky crops. Maybe if your friend is growing stuff in sealed containers, then green things would need her help. But otherwise, her little extra contribution is a mere tweet. On the other hand, don’t tell her that NASA is fooling around with experiments that involve CO2 exchange with green plants in space stations.

And speaking of tweet, we’ve read about a visionary gardener who’s marketing a super-grow combo for agricultural crops. He theorized that plants respond to the flocks of songbirds, which sing heartily at daybreak, by opening the stomata in their leaves, ready to soak in nutrients. Daggone if he didn’t find a physicist who bought the theory, and together they devised a tone that is nearly identical in frequency to the birdsong, whipped up a seaweed-based fertilizer, and applied both to Farmer Grey’s garden. Come harvest time: 12-foot-tall corn stalks, walnuts the size of oranges, 1200-foot-long passion flower vines. Even food-processing giant Cargill was interested in the farmer’s acoustic agriculture. He hopes to end world hunger with his invention. Sorry, but I haven’t heard about that revolution lately. Not sure what’s happened to the farmer’s plans.

All this does suggest that your friend’s singing might have a better effect on her houseplants than her breath. Since sound is an electromagnetic impulse, same as light, just at a different frequency, it’s not completely out of the question that it could have a beneficial effect. A scientist recently managed to get a sound out of a yeast cell. It putted along like a machine and changed tempo with temperature. Then he killed the cell, and the sound slowly pooped out to a wavery, sick-sounding bleep. Spooky. (If we put our ears up way close to a peanut butter sandwich, could we hear the bread hum?) So, all the academicians who in the ’70s booed the hippie notion of singing to plants will have to eat their word.

Dear Big Cheez: Where did the expression come from — the big cheese? Or cheez, maybe. Why is my boss the big cheese? — Ms. Mid-Level Cheez, San Diego

Oh, the word nerds again. Cheese? Indian. Slumdog Indian, not Tonto Indian. From chiz, “thing.” Adopted by the Brits during their sojourn there in the mid- to late 1800s. As in, “That yummy tandoori chicken was the real chiz.” “Running roughshod over India is the real chiz, wot, Major? Haw-haw!” Ahem. Anyway. When the Brits left, along with a number of other things, they took with them the expression, which quickly became the more familiar-to-the-Anglo-ear “cheese.” From there it morphed into things of the big-shot persuasion, like the boss.

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Sorry, Matt. Sound is NOT an electromagnetic impulse -- it's an acoustic wave. Sound can be converted to and from electromagnetic waves in common electronic gadgets (MP3 players, sound recorders, radios, TVs, etc.), but your larynx and ears are dealing with air pressure impulses, not electromagnetic ones... ...your friendly local nerd in Mira Mesa

"...plants predate people..."

FEED ME, Seymour! :)

@rlssdr: Actually, air pressure is not required. Sound travels underwater just fine, and it actually can travel through solds as well.

As crazy as it sounds...plants actually hate the sounds of Robert Plant. They don't care for their namesakes high notes, apparently. They prefer The Carpenters (I've done years of research on this).

(and in my best Homer Simpson voice)...Mmmmmmm, cheese.

In space, no one can hear you scream. Sound and electromagnetic radiation are different in several different ways even though they are both waves. Sound travels at 767 mph at sea level and requires a medium in which to propogate such as air, water, or metal. Light travels a tad faster at 671,000,000 mph and requires no transmisison medium. If we communicated via electromagnetic waves we would have a radio transmitter in our throats instead of a larynx.

I've noticed over the years that quite a few popular science writers get this wrong and so do makers of sci-fi films. When the first Star Wars movie came out decades ago, scientists all over the world pointed out that despite the cool sound effects in the movie when the Death Star exploded, if the laws of physics were obeyed the explosion would be silent.

I have been pulled over to the side of the road and issued a ticket for breaking the laws of physics. Not sure what I was thinking of when I wrote that. Thanks for the clarification. Now go sing to your tomato plants.

well, there goes the argument against meat eating because it causes pain! i mean if yeast cells makes dying gasps do we now have to worry the apple we're eating is screaming in agony? is there anything left we can eat? man, i was so much better off living in blissful in n out ignorance!

Good one, Kriste.

Hey Simber, I've heard sci-fi geeks before say that very thing (I'm not saying you're a geek). But, what about this.

When we see the Death Star blow up and we hear the cool explosion...Or, we see one of the bad guys space ships blow up in fight with Luke Skywalker, and we hear it. Well...what if we are hearing it from the point of view of the people INSIDE the space station/space fighter? Obviously, they are showing it to us from the outside, where it would be silent out in space (much as the silence worked well, and was just as powerful, in 2001). Just something to think about.

The sound still wouldn't make it to the tin can you were standing in - no conduction medium in between. Now pay attention in class next time!

I was absent the day they did the science of sounds in outer space.

I have a friend that complains about things like this. When a sci-fi movie shows a space ship, and you hear it's jet engines fire up. Or, just the fact that there's fire at all, on some planet or asteroid.

But, if you start breaking down science-fiction films...would you be able to enjoy a man flying with a red cape? Or an alien that heels people with his finger?

That would be no fun.

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