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Entries in science (2)


Curious - but -True Stories of Common Vegetables

How Carrots Won the Trojan War, Curious [but True] Stories of Common Vegetables, Rebecca Rupp, Storey Publishing,                     ISBN 978-1-60342-968-9

When storyteller-scientists write fascinating books on mundane subjects, suddenly everyone wants to know about them. Ask some people to read about the history of an edible plant and they might roll their eyes with annoyance; others might gasp in disbelief that interesting stories are associated with the plant food we eat. Here is a delightful little book on that very subject, written by a talented educator who understands the importance of delivering information in an entertaining and engaging manner.

The author has collected unusual and unheard of anecdotes about twenty edible plants. From her book, we learn not only about the impact of certain vegetables and fruit on historic events but also about the effect of these edible plants on the lives of prominent players in the narrative of our civilization. I found myself eager to finish reading about one vegetable, in order to discover what the author might reveal about another.

Think of a popular edible plant and Dr. Rupp has an interesting story about it, from how asparagus seduced the King of France, to how celery contributed to Casanovas conquests. Before discovering these nuggets of information, I did not know how peppers won the Nobel Prize or how an eggplant made a holy man faint. Most interesting, was to learn that lettuce could put an insomniac to sleep.

In the chapter titled “How Spinach Deceived a Generation of Children”, we learn that a scientist’s misplaced decimal point ascribed to spinach an iron content ten times higher than it actually has. Consequently, in the late 1920’s, when Popeye the Sailor gulped down a whole tin of this cooked vegetable, depression-era kids emulated his action, erroneously believing that eating spinach would make them stronger.

Oddly enough, as soon as I got into the book – and that happened immediately - I became as interested in the author as I was in the text. After all, who writes about the historical significance of carrots, anyway? And why? Who is this writer? How did she accumulate so much fascinating information about the influence of plants on human activity?

Rebecca Rupp holds a PhD in cell biology and biochemistry. She has written over a dozen books for children and adults, as well as hundreds of articles for magazines, including Country Journal, Early American Life, Mother Earth News, Natural History, and Utne Reader. In addition, she writes a monthly column for "Home Education Magazine".

By homeschooled her three sons, Dr. Rupp has first-hand knowledge that kids respond best to scientific information when it is presented in a manner that is fun, lively, and offbeat. To help her children keep their attention focused, she combined impeccable science with strange-but-true examples and exciting experiments and projects designed to reinforce important concepts.

One of her publications titled “Weather: A Book about Pink Snow, Fighting Kites, Lightning Rods, Rains of Frogs,Typhoons, Tornadoes, and Ice Balls from Space” is considered to be a breakthrough book for stimulating children’s interest in science. The author’s extraordinary attention to factual details, combined with a storyteller’s skill, is what turns the reading of “How Carrots Won the Trojan War” into a delightful experience. No, I cannot reveal the military secrets of this root vegetable. Interested readers will have to obtain a copy of the book to discover that information for themselves.

This review originally appeared at, an international online book review site.



Growing and Eating Genetically Modified Food, According to Dr. Joe

One of the most popular undergraduate courses at McGill University, in Montréal, has been “The Chemistry of Everyday Living” taught by Dr. Joe Schwarz. As the title implies, the professor teaches that chemicals are involved in most of our daily activities:

…….essentially everything that we see, touch or feel in the world and beyond falls into the realm of chemistry……Whether it's vitamin supplements, cholesterol, plastics, water filters, space travel, vaccines, smells, tastes, fabrics, cosmetics, cooking, air pollution, trans fats, sweeteners, medicines, genetically modified foods, climate change, the softness of toilet paper or the bouquet of a wine, we're dealing with chemistry. Even our thoughts and feelings can be traced to chemical activity in the brain.

Dr. Joe, as he is affectionately called by the local media, talks about these topics on radio and writes for a newspaper. Over the years, I have accumulated interesting trivia by reading his column. I have learned that the color purple, used as a textile dye, was only invented in the mid 19th century, and that all shampoos, regardless of their price tag, contain the same ingredients.

In one newspaper column, Dr. Joe explained the chemistry of genetically modifying food. He framed that subject in the context of feeding the universe. He reported that while the population of the world that needs to be fed is constantly growing, the amount of arable land to grow that food is not. In order to satisfy world hunger, Dr. Joe contends that agro businesses need to increase the productivity of finite farm land without disturbing existing wild life.

One way to meet that challenge, he reports, is to develop food plants that are more reliable, more resistant to disease, will grow larger and more abundantly. That may be done by fiddling with the DNA of the plant i.e., modifying its genetic make up. It is argued by some that if we do not now improve the productivity of food plants, people might starve in the future.

Not everyone agrees with that prediction or with anything that Dr. Joe has to say on the subject. Some have taken rather nasty jabs at him for reporting on the benefits to society of genetically modified food, or for writing about the alleged safety of systemic weed killers, accusing him of siding with chemical companies.

What puzzles me is that no one has yet reported, in mainstream media, what effect the growing and eating of genetically modified crops will have on the quality of our food or the health of our bodies. I will be so bold to surmise that scientists, who must rely heavily upon the generosity of the chemical industry to run their labs, might be reluctant to search for or report upon negative consequences [if there actually are any] of growing or consuming modified food. To do so might jeopardize the funding of their own research or adversely affect their careers. It is regrettable but quite understandable that they choose not to bite the hand that feeds them.

However, one should expect that, in some countries, where life is heavily regulated by strong central governments, [and one would be surprised to discover how many democracies are centrally controlled], such research is encouraged because those governments are held responsible for the health and welfare of their citizens; scientists in those countries are not afraid to tackle this subject.

What have they discovered about genetically modified foods? Do these foods cause us any harm? Is it necessary to take steps to grow food even more efficiently than we can now? And if we do, how will we be able to justify exposing ourselves and our planet to possible or potentially adverse health issues?

One thing is certain: lay people do not know what the term genetically modified food really means, nor is it easy for us to understand the science behind it. As of this moment, we have no irrefutable, repeated double-blinded tested, empirical evidence that such foods will do us or the planet any harm. All we have are personal gut feelings and the visceral reactions to a paltry amount of research by pundits and self appointed oracles who earn a living from beating the drums that scare us.

The average citizen is caught in the middle between those that say GM foods are safe and those that say they are not. More universally respected research needs to be done and shared unbiasedly with the public. Until we have answers, the phrase “genetically modified food” will continue to sounds scary to a large number of people and, to err on the side of caution, many of us will choose not to grow or eat it - if we can.