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Mission to an almost unknown planet – why plant identification is vital to life on Earth

Dr M is researching for an article about communicating the importance and excitement of plants to young people and he came across a series of open-access lectures on the Gatsby Plant Sciences Summer School website.

There is interesting stuff here but one lecture which particularly caught Dr M’s imagination was by Dr Sandra Knapp, of the Natural History Museum, discussing the mysteries of plant diversity and how understanding plant diversity is a bit like a mission to an almost unknown planet.

This is a type specimen of how a lecture should both challenge and entertain and amongst the feast of fascinating facts and ideas are the following four:

    • The typically perceptive quote from Carl Linnaeus (Philosophica Botanica 1751): “If you do not know the names of things, the knowledge of them is lost too”.
    • Her own quote that: “a species is a hypothesis about the distribution of variation in nature”.
    • A fascinating description of botanical fieldwork and collecting plant specimens, and how pressing them for the herbarium requires the conversion of a very 3-dimensional object, the plant, into a very 2-dimensional, flat one, and how this is rather like origami, but in reverse!
    • And there is even an example of how Donald Rumsfeld’s infamous “unknown unknowns” concept is really quite pertinent to thinking about what we do – and especially what we do not – know about the number of species on earth (a big unknown unknown!).

Spell-binding lectures like this are one of the key drivers which with encourage students into the study and the wonder of plants!

Brava and encore!

Check out the full lecture here.