“I am determined”, said Kathy Willis of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in an interview in The Independent on Monday, “to prove botany is not the ‘Cinderella of science’”. How does she plan to do this? Her platform for this bold endeavour is a new series for Radio 4 entitled “Plants: from Roots to Riches”. It starts next week and there will be 25 episodes, airing daily just after the World at One. A quick look at the series website was enough to convince me that this series will not present botany as the ‘Cinderella of science’. Ugly Sister, maybe, but certainly not Cinderella.
Okay: I write a blog about the unfashionable end of biodiversity so you should probably have a rough idea of where this is all heading. I went to the program website where the subjects for the first two week’s episodes are listed. I saw one episode on fungi and one on cycads, which are a group of Gymnosperms but otherwise there is a very strong bias towards the flowering plants, the brash, over-dressed near relatives of the algae who, in my version of the pantomime that is natural history broadcasting, are ideally cast for the role of ‘Cinderella’.
Does it matter? It is flowering plants, after all, which provide us with most of our carbohydrate intake, many fibres and pharmaceuticals and clothe our landscapes in myriad different ways. Why should we concern ourselves with a group of organisms that most of us never notice?
Try this exercise: breathe in, breathe out. Don’t breathe in. Hold your breath. Now breathe in again. And out. Hold your breath again. Repeat. Keep repeating. Keep skipping every other breath.
That’s why I am bothered.
Half of all the energy that is trapped by the sun and converted to energy comes from algae. In the course of photosynthesis plants and algae produce oxygen. It replaces the oxygen that plants and animals – including us – suck out of the air for our own survival. Algae, indeed, put a lot of that oxygen into the atmosphere in the first place (see “Every (fifth) breath you take …”). They also represent a large part of our planet’s biodiversity (see “The sum of things …”). I am forever worried when algae get side-lined in favour of the more visually spectacular elements of the plant and animal worlds though I don’t have an easy solution.
This is not a moan directed at Kathy Willis in particular. Indeed, she is in good company as David Attenborough, too, is a serial offender. My problem is a broader one about how we can overcome the inevitable bias in natural history programming. I have been writing a blog about algae for 18 months now. I know the problems. These organisms are not anthropomorphic, they have no courtship rituals, their sex life makes pandas appear horny (see “The perplexing case of the celibate alga” amongst other posts) and their offspring do not have big, yearning eyes. People usually notice algae only when human activities have disrupted the balance so the algae become a problem. It is hard to convince people of the important role that algae play in the natural world. That’s why I suggest that it is algae that deserve the title of “Cinderella of Science”. Just remember: every second breath …
Of course, I may be too hard on Kathy Willis. We can only see the first two week’s programs on the website at the moment. Maybe … just maybe … she’s leaving the best until last.
Kirchman, D.L. (2012). Processes in Microbial Ecology. Oxford University Press.