These Vibes Are Too Cosmic

2/16/16 Show: Plant physiology and climate change with Dr. Paul Gauthier + how cool are gravity waves


Image courtesy The Nature Conservancy.

This week’s interview features  Dr. Paul Gauthier, an Associate Research Scholar in the Department of Geosciences here at Princeton University. As a plant physiologist, he’s an expert in plant behavior, including respiration and photosynthesis. Specificially, Paul researches the connection between environmental stresses and carbon balance within plants — how much carbon do they store (via photosynthesis) and how much do they exhale (via respiration)?

A key point that Paul stresses is the delicate balance most plants maintain between storing energy and releasing it. Like us, all plants have to breath all the time, expelling CO2 into the atmosphere. While the trunk, roots, and branches all respire, the leaves of the plant photosynthesize energy out of sunlight to store new energy for further growth. Every plant invests years and years of energy into stores for later growth: just check out this video of an acorn, which shows the slow growth from seed to shrub of an oak tree. All this energy had to be produced and saved by the parent tree that produced the acorn!

Paul’s science analyzing the carbon balance within plants goes from the lab (where sunflowers are his favorite specimen) to the natural forests of Sweden. There, Paul and his group can investigate the strange effect that 24-hour days can have on plants–imagine staying awake without a rest for two months on end, as all trees north of the Arctic Circle must do. Such stresses introduce interesting adaptations into the plants genes, which help them respire less, and thus hold on to their carbon more efficiently.

As climate change transforms the environment around us, plants are especially susceptible to small changes. Paul explains that a drought in California, made more common by climate change’s dramatic effects, can deplete a plant’s storage of carbon and energy. A particular tree may seem healthy as soon as extreme weather ends, but in reality it will take many years to bounce back from using up all its invested energy. In this way, it’s hard to measure the immediate impact of climate change on forests: detrimental effects may not appear for 8-10 years.

You can keep up on Paul’s research by following him on Twitter! @LabGauthier

Finally, Stevie and Brian end the show with a re-cap of gravity waves (which you’ve been hearing about all over the news this week, and as Stevie predicted on our previous show). The LIGO experiment successfully detected a faint signal of spacetime fluctuations, which match Einstein’s predictions exactly. Somewhere a billion light-years away, two massive black holes collided and caused a ripple in the fabric of our space to propagate toward the Earth–just in time for us to measure it! Physicists are hugely excited about the new possibilities this discovery gives us for understanding our universe, and we hope you’ll pay attention for new developments. Who knows what we’ll eventually find.