Fourth dimension surfing

The second image below has marked time in the drafts section of my dashboard for well over a month. It was taken at the Jacoby Falls on one of the very first mild weekends of our Pennsylvania spring. An earlier post which described that visit concerned a topic altogether divorced from that of tree trunks, and so too does this one. I have thought much, as part of my professional responsibilities, about a construct called morphospace. Let me explain. Imagine how you might describe, by measurement, an animal such as a garden snail, for example. You’d have to measure the length of the shell, the width of the shell, and the dimensions of the shell opening … and then you’d have to count the number of whorls and somehow determine their rate of expansion. When you were done you might have ten measures. Now consider that this shell, because you have collected ten variables, occupies a point in ten-dimensional space, morphospace, a cloud of points which describes the totality of snail shells. Below is a famous representation of the (three-dimensional) morphospace occupied by molluscs (mostly snails and clams).


Let us now consider physical, rather than mathematical, dimensions. The first dimension is a point on a line, the second is a surface, and the third is a cube. The fourth dimension is, of course, time. And, that’s what this post is about. In particular I’ve been thinking about how it is that the lives of plants play out, in this fourth dimension, very differently than ours. Generation times vary across organisms. Humans have an average generation time of twenty-five years. This figure drops to five days for an aphid, and just several minutes for a bacterium. Most plants, in comparison, live life at a very different pace. If you’ve ever been fortunate to view a time-lapse sequence of a growing plant you know that they do indeed move. These movements however are not driven by muscles (as is the case in animals) but are generated by changes in water pressure and in the absolute size of cells. Movement notwithstanding plants, once established, stand, rooted, stately, stoically, and quietly. They are subject to environmental influence, come-what-may, for they cannot move. I am most impressed by the lives of especially long-lived woody dicots. The oldest tree known is a Great Basin Bristlecone Pine thought to be more than 5,000 years old. Although such antiquity is rare, trees dating between 1,000 and 3,000 years old are quite common. [The oldest known clonal (vegetative) tree is a Quaking Aspen thought to be more than 1,000,000 years old.] The lives of plants play out on a much longer time horizon than ours. Trees are in no hurry. Can we learn anything from this? I often wonder.


As a postscript, and with a nod to my geekier followers, I point to a series of radio broadcasts entitled Ruby, The Adventures of a Galactic Gumshoe in which the sport of Fourth Dimensional Surfing is described. And, finally I present this video clip, produced by Mother Nature Videos which presents one videographer’s view of surfing in the fourth dimension.

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