Tag Archives: Technology

Behind the Music: Plants

I’ve spent a lot of time on this blog writing about the importance of plants. They are the energetic foundation of our biosphere. We use them for food, fiber, fuel and building materials. This is why it is so important to understand how they work to further extract useful work and energy out of them. Today’s post explores an area that plants have not been adequately exploited, and I have no idea why we haven’t jumped on this sooner. I’m talking of course about music production.

Before you can even utter LOLWut!?!, allow me to introduce Data Garden. They are a group dedicated to creating new electronic art and have successfully completed a Kickstarter campaign to fund MIDI Sprout. It’s a cool idea with an even cooler logo (also true for Data Garden generally). MIDI Sprout is a device that allows users to create biofeedback art from plants. Huh? You attach the electrodes to the leaves of your houseplant and it records the changes in electrical signals emitted by the plant into an output readable by synthesizers and computers. So, basically it allows you to turn your plant’s existence into music. They’ve already had an exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the recording is available for purchase on their website.

So many thoughts on this…

This may blow your mind, but so many of us plant scientists, photosynthesis researchers specifically, have been communicating with our plants using light and fluorescence to determine how healthy or sick they are. We haven’t been listening to them. Maybe I can finally get a Science or Nature paper if my methods include synthesized acoustics as an assay for plant fitness. Those journals just fall all over themselves when it comes to new methods. The evil scientist in me wants to hook up my lab plants to the MIDI Sprout electrodes and run all of my usual experiments and treatments- red light excitation, treatment with the herbicide DCMU, plant hormones, methyl viologen, DBMIB, or high or low CO2 conditions. I would also require an instrument with submersible electrodes so I can record my algal and cyanobacteria cultures as well. Why should plants be the only photosynthetic organisms to hit the top 100?

The MIDI Sprout is advertised as an instrument to listen to your houseplants, but I don’t think my singular Cristmas cactus will cut it. I’m sure it’s just because you need a pluggable power source, but a portable version can probably be developed with enough solid state storage capacity to cache recorded responses until you can get back to the studio and remix everything. Then you can listen to gardens, natural environments, GMO cornfields or whatever you want. Move over Sound Garden, here comes Garden Sound. Interestingly, there are already quite a few musical recordings close to the genre if you search iTunes for ‘photosynthesis.’ They Might Be Giants has a catchy song about photosynthesis on their ‘Here Comes Science’ album. There’s also a group called Carbon Based Life Forms experimenting in the new age genre with plant-related themes. There’s even a group called ‘Plants’ on the new age label Strange Attractors in the same spirit. However, these are all humans as far as I can tell- autotroph imposters or interpreters- and not actual plants.

Plant-based music could introduce entire new genres and bands. What could they be called? Well ‘photosynthesizers’ is a little obvious and hack and I use it for something else. Phonosynthesis is already taken (recommend the album BTW). I’m copyrighting the term ‘autotrophony’ today as this new music genre. I’m sure it will stick if I hashtag it up on the interwebz. Regardless just think of the possibilities… Chard in G minor, Cacti concerto, Solanum sonata, tulip tunes, floral phonics. Autotrophic American Idol. Move over Beyoncé, here comes Botanée. Producers could create the perfect plant boy band equivalent with different potted species with no chance of a break-up. Can’t storm off stage if you’re immobile! If you hated Monsanto as an agribusiness empire, just wait until they break into the music industry. They will surely negotiate for royalties on music made by plants their seeds produced.

I’m thinking we could kick this movement into the mainstream. Some of the plant-synthesized music has some potential. It just needs some help from our species, since we will be the ones purchasing it. Collaborations with existing artists are what we need. Just think- there could be actual black-eyed peas on The Black Eyed Peas album. Remixes are where it’s at, so I just need the Skrillex Ilex, Avicii Vitis or David Guetta Betula remix. I’m thinking clap tracks ala LMFAO and vocals by Pitbull and Ke$ha. There’s gotta be a hit in there somewhere. I really just need to be a one-hit wonder to fund my photosynthesis research for the rest of my career, but short of that I could probably just DJ weddings, parties and bar mitzvahs on the weekends to independently sustain my lab outside of federal funding dollars.

Dr. Z Scheme PhD Sigh, there were no female DJ clip art images.

Dr. Z Scheme PhD
Sigh, there were no female DJ clip art images.

Of course, there are other artistic experimental ventures I could do with this system. I could try something totally meta. Remember that Talk to a Plant museum exhibit aimed at influencing plant growth with sound? What if you played music to plants while you were recording them for their music? Would it sound similar to the music in the room? Would those recordings be different than the music plants make in silence? Yeah. Mind. Blown.

Why does it have to be just an auditory experience? Why can’t you record the music of your food plants then eat them while listening to their music. I’m also trademarking the ‘Salad Soundtrack Bistro.’ If you live in a state like Colorado, recordings could be made of certain plants used for other recreational purposes and they could be sold as a packaged altered experience. Note, it’s just a good business plan to put my Music Munchie Bodega next door.

Clearly, I have tons of creative ideas for future plant exploitation for the sake of the arts and making money. I’m very curious as to the general availability of the MIDI Sprout on the horizon. If any readers have connections in the music industry, tell them to contact me. Otherwise, I guess I will have to figure out how to start my own youtube channel to get noticed. My music mogul persona is Dr. Z-scheme PhD on my P680 Fluorescent label.* Let’s do this.



*My plant science nerd friends reading this will get it.

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We choose…

Too many of my previous posts have been downers, so enjoy some inspiration for today.

President John F. Kennedy speaks at Rice Unive...

President John F. Kennedy speaks at Rice University (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Fifty-one years ago today, President John F. Kennedy gave a speech at Rice University justifying why sending an American astronaut to the moon before the end of that decade was so important. The accomplishments of the Apollo program culminating in Neil Armstrong’s moonwalk in 1969 still represent the acme of human scientific and engineering achievement. It was a goal that all of America looked toward during the process. It is a feat that we still look back on and point and say, “We did this together.” This preposterous, impossible thing. We made it possible. Then we checked it off our to-do list.


“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”

Of course there were reservations about the technology we had to tame to get us there, but the promise of progress was greater than the risk of inaction. These same principles still apply to many of our current scientific endeavors from genetic engineering in our food supply, novel medical treatments, and alternative energy strategies.

“We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man, and only if the United States occupies a position of pre-eminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theater of war.”

The technology is just technology. The only meaning it has is the one we give to it. The only purpose it has it what we use it for. The real problem lies not with the science or technology, but within us. To quote another president, we must rely on the better angels of our nature to ensure progress instead of self-destruction.

The legacy of our voyage to the moon and space exploration beyond is not a Jetsonian future in which we are all astronauts. However, there has been plenty of useful technology spawned by NASA research and engineering that you use in your daily lives, the majority of which could not have been anticipated from the inception of our moon goal. These include: CAT scanner, cordless tools, ear thermometer, invisible braces, joysticks, memory foam, water filters, shoe insoles and scratch-resistant lenses. What innovation are we missing out on as a result of setting mediocre goals instead of audacious ones?

Buzz Aldrin walks on the moon, July 20, 1969

Buzz Aldrin walks on the moon, July 20, 1969 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I think it’s time for another “call to the moon” moment in science. There’s plenty of worthy causes to select.

We choose a sustainable energy future.

We choose global food security.

We choose cures for our chronic illnesses.

Of course, the choice is dependent on a fair amount of collective investment. The moon would never have been possible without the full support of the government and the American people. Today’s challenges are no different. Except that they are somewhat more nebulous. All JFK had to do was point at the night sky and everyone knew what he meant. Our modern challenges don’t have easy targets. This is why scientists must advocate for their research areas and reach out to the public about their significance. We are living in a time where support for science is being tempered instead of intensified. These are all obstacles to our current impossible tasks. Let’s not make them excuses. There will always be a million reasons why something can’t be done. We need vocal unwavering visionaries for our current challenges to say

“But it will be done. And it will be done before the end of this decade.”

What do you choose? Is it difficult enough to challenge the best of your energies and skills?