I think it’s in my blood…

It almost seemed like springtime today! After weeks and weeks of cold weather, and lots of rain, today we had a pretty good day, with quite some sun coming through. We had barely set foot in our garden over the past weeks, except for dumping some organic waste on the compost pile every now and then. I’m from a family of gardeners. My grandfather spent his working life as a groundskeeper for the local church. One uncle had a plant nursery for a long time. Another has owned a garden center for as long as I can remember. I have worked in plant nurseries and as freelance gardener from the age of 13, and this ended somewhere mid-way through my time at university, during which I have mostly focused on indoor plants (and viral transmission in potato and tobacco by various aphid species). When I started my PhD, I was heavily involved in three large field experiments (for instance the ones I wrote about in Heinen et al. 2020, Ecology Letters, and Heinen et al. 2020, Arthropod-Plant Interactions). Field experiments… well, you could call it ecological gardening if you wish. The resemblance is there.

Since we live in Freising, we are lucky to have a garden of our own. An old and spectacularly unkept garden, that is. Great! I like to keep my garden jungle-like, for personal and biodiversity-related reasons. We generally only mow roughly fifty percent of our ‘lawn’, and when, then not too short. Is it really a lawn? I don’t really know, to be honest. There’s about thirty percent moss and a good thirty percent cover by forbs. Lots of forget-me-nots (Myosotis arvensis), buttercups (Ranunculus acris), endless daisies (Bellis perennis), some monster dandelions (Taraxacum officinale, see picture above), countless flowering stork’s bills (Erodium cicutarium), ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea), and some huge but now senescing patches of celandine (Ficaria verna), all in all making quite a colorfol impression. The remainder forty percent cover is grass. I am horrible with identification of most grasses, but I’m pretty sure that most of them are not the typical lawn grasses. Sure, there is some Lolium perenne here and there, but also a substantial number of Alopecurus pratensis bushes (typically about 50 cm high) and by far most seems to be Arrhenatherum elatius or something similar, a grass that grows almost a meter tall. Not exactly lawn material. Does this classify as a lawn? To be honest, I don’t care. Whatever it is, it is buzzing with arthropod and other invertebrate life, and as a result, my garden is also pretty rich in bird life, insectivore or other. It is our piece of heaven.

Up until today, we have hardly spent any time in our garden this year. The soil is loamy, and the rain made it quite a mess to walk around in it. But it is now finally getting better. I have been given some tomato and chilli plants by two colleagues which had been waiting for a while to be repotted and brought outside. (The plants, not the colleagues) I have also already had plans to grow more herbs and vegetables in our garden since we moved in here, but I never took the required action.

Today, I did! I installed a couple of potting shelves on which I can work with potted plants. Given that tomatoes and chillies do not like rain, it was important to install a roof shelter as well. One part of our garden is bordered by some concrete garage boxes. I figured these could be used to used in some useful way – and it would be hard to make it uglier… I am by no means a DIY genius, and I don’t particularly enjoy walking around in the DIY market to do some shopping for materials without a proper plan. Nevertheless, I did and impulsively bought some random materials that seemed useful. As a positive side effect – these random materials were quite colorful.

A couple of hours later, guided only by random intuition, I finished my growing shelter, with shelves, roof and all. In fact, it was so successful that I might extend it and effectively double the amount of space. The design (or rather non-design) could also be extended to a closed system fairly easily, which I might still do near the end of the summer. For now, I am fairly happy that my first plants have what they need.

Fuck, I love working outside!

Deep connect

This evening, I had a short conversation on Facebook Messenger (of all places) with an old friend that I had not spoken to in two years. She bumped into a horrible old picture of me on a field excursion we enjoyed together during our Biology studies, I think this particular expedition was in 2009. She somehow felt the need to share it with me. I’m glad that she did. We had a short but fun conversation. Two people with an awkward sense of humor and few verbal boundaries. Surely that will make for a fun talk. I guess there’s some value in social media.

This is the picture. The 2009 me, something that no one actually needed to see. (Fuck it)

One of the things I realized when I jokingly suggested she should move here so I’d have some friends, is that it’s pretty sad. This fucked up pandemic has completely ruined my social life. I know and like many of my colleagues, but all the restrictions have made it so that I never went for a beer with any of them. I hardly ever see them. We have a laugh every now and then in the rare moments we do meet, so there surely is potential. It’s just that there has been very little ‘longevity’ in the interactions, because it is all just so messed up right now. What’s missing is that deep connection – this could be a shared passion for something, long in-depth conversations about subjects (that are not necessarily work), a click in mutual weirdness, humor, and potentially a few others. I miss sharing these (that is, with others than my sweet, weird, funny and awesome conversationalist life partner).

It’s not that we have no connections here. We have made a few connections with sweet people that we meet up with when the corona regulations allow it, but I guess they don’t ‘get’ me. I always feel the odd one out. Maybe it is also that I try to maintain most of my relationships in Germany in German. I’m a guest here, so I will adapt. German has only very recently become my third-best language (after Dutch and English), and until only two years ago, at the conversational level it would be similar to my French or Spanish. My language inundation here has resulted in a steep learning curve. Regardless, it is not easy to have a deep and meaningful conversation with someone in a language that you’re not super confident about. Comedic wordsmithery is of course out of question. The deep connect is hard to find. These things are perhaps a bit different for my wife Heike. Even though she grew up in The Netherlands, she’s born German, and German is still her mother tongue (even though she probably has a thick Dutch accent, he he). The established German relationships here are much more important to her, I think because it facilitates connecting deeply. Maybe she’s also just not as weird.

I can’t wait for this corona shit to be over and life to somehow turn to normal or close to it. I want to hang out with colleagues that speak the same language and lingo (being English and ecology). I want to see my friends and family in other countries. I want to nourish existing and novel deep connections before I turn full-on awkward penguin. I’m getting there, I can tell you that. Maybe this is also why I’m rambling my words onto a screen every evening. I would almost consider a single-person podcast so I can regularly have long conversations with no one in particular.

I need it, before it’s too late.

This will change your life

I will keep it simple today, but nevertheless, the message of this post will change your life. It did for me. At the very least, you will enjoy better meals, and that is a great place to start to make improvements!

Preserved lemons!

That’s it. Preserved lemons are the magical ingredient to make anything taste nice. Many foodie hipster muppets are pretty darn positive about adding preserved lemon to meals. The former director of my previous institute repeatedly referred to me as ‘that hipster, with the glasses and the beard and the bun’ (I guess I have a difficult name). I admit that I see how I could fit the stereotype, but fuck it. I’ll have it. In addition to this, I like food, meals and especially those of the non-Western kind, so how could I not be interested? Now, you will hardly find preserved lemons in any Western recipe (or supermarket for that matter), but then again, Western cooking rarely hits the top of the charts, eh?

The good news is that it is pretty easy to make preserved lemons yourself. I started exploring this new ingredient in December of last year. I had seen quite a few Middle Eastern and North African recipes that needed it as flavouring, usually added ‘to taste’. I had never seen preserved lemons in Dutch supermarkets (or maybe they are hidden on some obscure bottom shelf, I didn’t look that close). I decided to make my own. I just searched on the big old Google, and found heaps of recipes. Plenty of them looked rather uninspiring, until I bumped into this one, which combines lemons with all kinds of flavoury spicy goodness. Yes! That one is for me.

Full of energy and inspiration I bought a whole stash of organic and unsprayed lemons and got started. It probably took me 10 minutes to prepare a good jar full of them. The next step is to store them somewhere and wait.

You’ll need a whole bunch of organic unsprayed lemons. The organic part is not essential for success, but it turns out that all available unsprayed lemons here are organic, which is perhaps not so surprising.

The recipe said three weeks, so Robin patiently waited three weeks. But on day 22 I opened the jar and couldn’t wait to taste them and experience myself what half the foodie world was raving about.

I take a small piece of the skin (supposedly the best part)…

ABSOLUTELY HORRIBLE. These things were absolutely unpalatable. The bitterness was through the roof. It was basically a sour-bitter mess. I felt immediately sorry for spending almost thirty euros on the nicest lemons. What a waste. I somehow never threw them out, so they spent another two months or so on the bottom-shelf of our fridge (I have a tendency to overlook bottom shelves).

A few months ago, we suddenly remembered the disgusting lemons. Perhaps we should finally throw them out. But I couldn’t. I can’t throw out food that easily. (I have pretty strong principles against wasting any food) I decided to give them another go. I would come up with something to pair them with, so we could maybe still use them in some dish. What happened next was a life changer for me. I’m not sure what happened between the first time I tried, and this second trial, but I consider it magic. It somehow changed into the best ingredient I know (and I have sampled quite a few across the globe). It’s a perfect balance of salty and sour, and the bitterness has become mild and adds a pleasant touch. It works well with pretty much anything that you would put salt on, but this just makes it feel like you are a michelin chef.

So if life gives you lemons, put them in a big jar with a bunch of spices, salt and lemon juice. Store dark and cold. Shake the jar every now and then to stir it all up. (Not sure what it does, but it makes you feel like a culinary hero)

Wait.

Not just three weeks (this is just a lie!). Three months.

Be patient.

Enjoy!

It eventually will look a bit like this. Oddly cloudy, but the amount of lemon juice and salt in this mix is so high that I don’t believe anything can live in there. Honestly, they only started tasting good after the jar’s content started to look somewhat questionable.

***I just had a spaghetti carbonara with white asparagus topped with preserved lemon, This obviously will not be available in three months from now, as the asparagus season is closing. I apologize for this, but you’ll have to wait and try this one next spring. No worries, these lemons last forever (if you don’t eat them sooner), and taste good with almost anything!***

Weekly patterns

Even though my weeks are rather unpredictable in terms of how other people hijack my schedule, there are still very predictable trends in how I feel or perceive the day every day of the week. My emotional or psychological state of being seems to closely follow the day of the week. I thought it would be good to write down how I have experienced my weekdays lately. I wonder if I read it back in a couple of months, I will find that anything has changed, or that it truly is a stable pattern.

During the current pandemic situation we have no child care for our 2 year-old son Rafa. He has been at home with us since last December. As you can imagine, with two parents working from home with an active toddler around, the real schedule includes many interruptions or extended periods of child care. Most meetings will include him – at least for some part of the time – and I have taught courses with him on my lap. I have grown to like it. He’s my favorite colleague. As a rule I take care of Rafa’s afternoon nap ritual, so that my wife Heike can make a solid afternoon shift while he sleeps. She takes up most of the care on some heavily loaded mornings, such as the Wednesdays and the Fridays. In other parts of the week we alternate our work time around Rafa, so that he always has full attention from one of his parents. He did not choose for any of this shit, and I will not allow this pandemic to affect his happiness. It’s a tough ride and we are often tired, but we have found a system that seems to work. Latest at 6PM, we shut down. For readability, I left these childish interruptions out of my schedule below – it is obviously simplified, but it does the trick. Consider any interruption by Rafa a spark of happiness, if you will. He keeps me going every day.

Here goes.

Monday: Mondays are the worst days. It seems that over the weekend my brain has convinced me that I suck at what I do. Almost like I have completely forgotten my state at the end of the previous week. On Sunday night I often lie awake, or I wake up unnecessarily early (and for no apparent reason than just to suffer inside my own brain). I usually have one of those horrible anxiety-filled early hours spent in the zone between sleep and awake state. On Monday mornings, I feel worse than on any other time of the week. Meetings on Monday mornings are useless, because I prefer to be my best self in meetings. This is never so on Mondays. Just leave me alone on Monday mornings. As the day progresses, I often notice that I actually remember quite some of the things I knew when I closed up shop for the weekend on the Friday before. Although the anxiety weakens over the day, it drains my energy. (People with anxiety problems will recognize this well) I understand very well how Monday has received its negative image. It’s just a fucking rotten day. Be better, Monday!

Tuesday: The second day of the week is usually a bit better than the first. I often remember first thing in the morning that I found back my forgotten skills somewhere by Monday afternoon. This makes me feel like less of an imposter and gives me a confidence boost. As a result, my Tuesdays are generally quite productive. People often want meetings on Tuesdays, too, so I have the feeling that Tuesday is a much-appreciated day for many academics out there.

Wednesday: Wasted Wednesday. After months of trying to find the best place for some of the fixed components in our weekly schedules, my colleagues and I have tried different formats. After trying several versions with meetings scheduled on different days, we have now decided for a Wednesday morning with a postdoc meeting, a chair group meeting, and a journal club, all in one morning. Any meeting breaks up my daily schedule, so I would rather have all these nicely clumped together, so it saves the rest of my week from departmental meetings. I squeeze in a moment to update our group Twitter account, and I top off the morning with my weekly Wednesday lunchtime session with my therapist. It seems like a good time to blow off some steam and try to understand why I feel unfit for anything. After having a very quick lunch upon my return home, I bring my son to bed, so I can finally start the real workday, usually around 2PM. The afternoons are good. It is like a mid-week celebration event. I try to keep it for writing, but you know how it goes. Might as well be three meetings. Or greenhouse work, as it was today.

Thursday: My Wednesday therapy sessions often provide me with a re-established perspective on the academic game. Full of inspiration and energy, I decide from pretty much every Thursday morning that from that moment on I will prioritize myself, say no more often, schedule breaks to cool down my overstimulated brain. I generally schedule a morning and afternoon block of writing, which I use for revising papers of working on manuscripts. In between these blocks, I have a lunch and bring my son to bed. Most Thursdays end up with at least one, but often several meetings breaking up my writing blocks. This makes me almost always feel unproductive and more frazzled than I wish to be.

Friday: This is without question my favorite work day. On Fridays Heike doesn’t work, which means that she takes up most of the care for Rafa, although I often still bring him to bed for his afternoon nap. For some reason nobody seems to work on Fridays, so no one wants to talk to me. This is bliss. Any of my academic writing in the past two years has probably been written on a Friday. At the end of any Friday I feel amazing. Productive. Energetic. I almost feel like working a bit in the weekend. (I don’t!) How can we generate more Fridays?

Saturday: We go outside whenever we can, preferably to some nice nature. Nature is healing. Sometimes this is combined with some shopping. I feel good.

Sunday: A replicate of Saturday, but without the shopping. Shopping on Sundays does not exist in Germany. I feel good, until I wake up again at night to start the weekly pattern all over.

Do other people recognize these patterns? Or is every day the same? What do you do to create the best week experience? I’d be happy to hear it in the comments below :)!

Non-reviews

I reviewed a paper the other day. For quite a reputable journal, I might add. Not some predatory rubbhish. It was quite a nice piece, too. This paper had a very decent introduction, results were quite well-presented (and certainly convincing). However, the methodology lacked some specificity, and I could certainly not reproduce their statistical models. The results segment was overall rather well-organized, but there were some inconsistencies in the presentation of the results in different segments. (I guess these segments were written by different people) Although I had a couple of critical general comments on the statistical methodology and results, I still gave the paper a fairly positive review. Nonetheless I ended up writing about 2-3 pages of comments, most of which were minor textual remarks – which I clearly indicated at the beginning of my evaluation of the paper.

This morning, I receive the editorial decision on the above paper. The editor appended the reviewer’s comments from the second reviewer, and followed my suggestion for a major revision (although my comments could easily be implemented in a couple of hours, so a minor major revision at that). Call me I still like to read what other reviewers think of the same work. First of all because I quite liked reading it myself, and secondly to see if there would be overlap in my remarks and the other reviewers’ remarks. I guess I’m still figuring out if my own thinking makes sense sometimes. This sort of practice helps me with that.

When I opened the complete list of reviewer’s comments, it read (and I’m roughly paraphrasing here):
“Reviewer 1: The paper is well-written and has a good structure.”
That was it. The reviewer’s comments then continued straight to my own comments. (I was Reviewer 2 – which is usually not a good sign) Now this has been the third instance of such a weak review that I have heard about in the past two weeks, and two of these were not in MDPI journals or other semi-predatory open-access journals.

Two things come to mind.

First, why do I never get such reviews?

Second, if you really cannot come up with anything to improve a paper, should you review the paper? I cannot imagine any paper that I would not have ANYTHING to comment on. I can come up with thoughts and criticisms on almost any paper. Aren’t we trained to be critical, and to question everything? I could certainly imagine reading a manuscript that is already in such a great state, that I would have very little to add, of course. Shouldn’t you, then, also describe why this paper was so excellent and what got you convinced? Maybe I am still young and naive for believing that thorough review actually can make a paper better.

Honestly, reviews like “wow, great paper, congratulations” in the first round of reviews give zero indication that the reviewer actually has read the paper, and in my view should be considered as non-reviews. Maybe everyone’s busy during this pandemic, but then don’t accept the review invitation. I guess it would be better for everyone to wait longer and at least have a solid review process.

To end on a positive note, at least it gave the editor an easy decision…

Life’s Edge – Exploring what it means to be alive (or close)

I greatly enjoy the writings of Carl Zimmer. When it comes to describing immensely complex aspects of biology, such as the complex molecular machinery that drives cells, tissues, and organisms, I don’t know many that can present them in such a digestible way. I have been waiting for Zimmer to write a new book ever since I finished ‘She has her mother’s laugh‘, an in-depth background into the history, present and the future of heredity. My friend Maddy gifted it to me when I was about to pass on my own genes to the next generation – a pretty spot-on present (and a highly recommended read).

I did not have to wait for too long. Zimmer is rather prolific as a writer. Earlier this year, his latest title ‘Life’s Edge‘ came out. In this book, Zimmer explores the definition of life. In his explorations, Zimmer meets with scientists from a broad number of fields, from chemistry, to microbiology, to physics, to philosophy. What I love about his work is that his writing almost makes you feel like you are there at the interviews and discussions he describes. All of this is interwoven with a good dose of science history, which never seems to bore me.

Life – it is something so familiar to us, that we rarely think about its definition. It is something that we just know or feel to be what it is. Yet, as it turns out, the experts in the field struggle to find a unifying definition. Life is pretty confusing – but the confusion inspired enjoyable reading material. The journey brings the reader from pythons (always a good start), to slime molds, to hibernating bats, only to end with robots programmed to re-create life in a laboratory.

The book may have left me with more questions about life than I had before, but it has also given me many new ideas which to include in my own teaching about life on earth. Reading the book was like life itself – an interesting and enjoyable journey.

Lower your expectations

We almost didn’t go…

Heike has a tendency to look at weather forecasts (and traffic conditions) too much. Because – as per usual – the German weather forecast predicted 200% chance of rain all day every day, she was in serious doubt whether we should even drive out this weekend. I care less about weather or traffic. I just want to go out and forget. It took me quite some time to convince her otherwise, and I’m quite sure that some of this time was while we were already on the road… (Yes, we took the Nugg out for another ride)

There was a bit of rain yesterday, but it started only more or less at the time we got into the van and parked it for the night. This morning certainly was pretty dreadful, with rain pouring down until 11. Nothing I would want to spend time in. However, Rafa – who’s usually an early riser – for once decided to sleep in until 8.30. So, although we caught a few drops of rain on our morning hike, pretty soon the first rays of sunlight made it through the clouds, and not long after, the cloudy roof broke open completely, leaving only a few leftover clouds against a deep blue sky. (Those leftover clouds make the holiday pictures better) After a very sunny and enjoyable afternoon near the K√∂nigssee, we are now on a parking lot with the most spectacular views, so we will stay here for the night.

This is the view from our van this evenening

Tomorrow, the weather was supposed to be better. Well, I don’t know what that’s supposed to say, but if it’s half as good as today’s weather, I’m pretty happy.

It’s a typical example of what happens if you let others determine your expectations. Just don’t. You can almost always dress for bad weather (and horrible traffic conditions are not that bad when you’re in good company). I often try not to have too many expectations. This doesn’t mean that you cannot get into bad circumstances, but whatever happens, as long as you don’t compare it to the perfect (made-up) or horrible (made-up) pictures in your mind, you will almost never be disappointed.

Instead just go with the flow, and you might end up somewhere nice, discover new things, or hike for hours through pouring rain. Just go. The good almost always outweighs the bad.

*** I’m not completely sure what happened with this post, or when it was posted. I realized after writing it on the evening of 23 May that any sources of internet were far out of reach. I panicked, as I do, because this would break up my uninterrupted chain of ramblings, and I would lose sleep over this. For some reason, the post seems to have made it through the air into the online world before midnight of the 23rd (and this saved my chain!). However, the accompanying picture of my view from the Nugg was somehow thrown out. Today, a day later, I edited it back in, because it was probably the nicest part of the post. Sorry for all readers that have missed out on the view.***

Going off-grid

In the current era of fast-flowing information, I often feel that I get too many impulses. (You probably do too – this can’t be just me) I often complain to myself about not having enough time, to relax, to read, to write, to draw, to meditate, you name it. Yet, whenever there is a small window of opportunity to do any of the above, I usually don’t. As if an invisible puppeteer controls me, I immediately reach fory phone, my laptop. Except the writing, I hardly ever use these devices for any of the other much desired items on the wish list. I usually check emails, scroll through Twitter, looking for the latest gossip in ecology, I may read some abstracts for potentially interesting papers, or I obsessively stare at data that visualize the current status of the pandemic. I certainly know how to keep myself busy, and although they’re not the worst activities to spend time on, they’re certainly not that pressing either. Arguably my attention for these matters, or the complete lack thereof, won’t make a huge difference in the world.

This morning we packed our van to enjoy our holiday weekend somewhere South, in the Alps. Although we have explored areas just South of Munich quite a bit, there are plenty of places to the east and west that we have never been to. One such place is Berchtesgadener Land, where apparently the Bavarian Alps should be particularly pretty. We never went there, because it’s about a 2.5 hours drive away, just too much for a day trip. But now that we have a home on wheels and the pandemic curfews have been lifted in many places, we thought it was time to explore new territory.

I guess there are worse places to sit quietly.

So now I’m here, sitting in my van on a parking lot in the middle of fucking nowhere. Heike’s joining Rafa for his afternoon nap. This is a desolate parking lot in the Alps. It’s a small piece of heaven. Sitting in a campervan in this place is not as bad as it may sound. Now suddenly I find myself with two hours to spend on something. I immediately reach for my phone. I got to scroll through Twitter! But, oh no! I’m in the middle of nowhere, with a tiny little reception of Germany’s favorite internet network; E. Forget checking email. Forget Twitter. I tried, but it won’t refresh. I’m off-grid. A slight feeling of panic rises up from within. What do I do?

I relax, I write (I can use the WordPress app somehow – although it’s painstakingly slow), then I read, maybe I will meditate.

Isn’t it bizarre that I need to be off-grid – to literally have no other options – in order to force myself to do these things, that I usually all really enjoy?

I’m an addict!

A dark place

Since a couple of years, I have gotten quite interested in the effects of artificial light at night, especially on plant-mediated interactions. This interest was mostly sparked by many kitchen table conversations with my friend and former house mate Davide, who has studied effects of light at night on bird behaviour for many years. It appears to be quite problematic for some of them. I think many people probably do not realize it, given that light pollution is active mostly when we are not, but it is pretty damn hard to find a dark place in most populated areas in the world. Some light is almost always seeping in. And it is an ever-growing problem. I find this both interesting and worrisome, so I wanted to study its effects more in-depth. Given that I work on plant-mediated interactions, and plants are quited tuned into light for their physiological processes, the link was easily made. I had digested several ideas for two years, before I applied to my position in Freising, but when I shared them in my job interview, they were met with great interest. (I got the job!)

When I arrived in Germany, I was immediately offered space in seven separate greenhouse chambers available a couple of months after my arrival. I have since used these spaces to conduct several experiments to investigate how various aspects of artificial light at night affect a particular plant model system. The results were very interesting, and quite unexpected, which is always good to keep oneself curious (more on this experiment will follow as soon as I have all the data analyzed, and a manuscript in a more final shape). It was a great way to start this new research line of mine, which had been on my mind for so long.

What I had not thought about much is how to follow up on my first results, once I would have the first. Interesting results always spark many ideas for follow-up experiments. At least they do for me. First of all, I did not consider that space for experiments would be an issue, given that there is a serious plant growth facility near our campus. A second problem, that relates to space as well, is that I never thought deeply about how to separate light treatment and dark controls if you don’t have separate spaces. This is obviously because I had seven climate chambers available, and they separated the treatments perfectly. Now, a problem is that the climate chambers I have used before are in heavy demand. That is, I have used my time, and now I have to wait my turn to do more work in them. Upon submission of a proposal for the next call for experiments, I have recently been granted several months of space… but it will be only from late 2022. As you can imagine, this sort of time frame is not very useful if you want to make some progress in the foreseeable future.

So my thoughts went into different directions, being alternative separation of treatments, and collection of lit and unlit field data.

For a while now I have been breaking my head over options to create lit and unlit spaces in the same greenhouse. Of course this would be doable, by fencing the treated areas off entirely, and placing a light inside. However, at the same time, it would be important not to block the entrance of daylight into the space. Therefore, a closed box would not work. This would separate treatments, but have no daylight. An open-top box with sides fenced-off, perhaps? I’m a bit worried that the glasshouse, being made of glass, will scatter the light all over the place. My most recent idea is to have open top chambers in the greenhouse, with lights that are semi-covered from above (to prevent scatter into the greenhouse). In my mind, this will severely reduce spillover of light from the treatment into the control. But will this work in practice? And maybe more importantly, will it convince a reviewer at all? Maybe I will give this system a go over the next few months, just to see how it would look.

The second brain fart – the one about collecting field data – was also a thought that was easier said than done. Of course collecting plant material from the field is easy. Measuring various plant parameters related to growth and fitness should not be too hard. However, what I had characterized as an easy-peasy job, turns out to be a bit more difficult than anticipated. Of course street lights are everywhere. Some of the weeds that I work on are also everywhere. So far, that all sounds like a perfect scenario for success. However, it is well-known that plants strongly respond to local conditions such as soil (a)biotic conditions, and other environmental characteristics such as temperature. A lit plant is easy to find. But ideally, my unlit control plants should be somewhat local, at least under similar soil and vegetation conditions. This turns out more challenging than I thought. Street lights often being placed in road verges, whenever you move away from them, you almost always meet different soil conditions (e.g., agricultural fields or tarmac) or the next street light… These bloody street lights are everywhere! If that isn’t difficult enough, there turns out to be a lot of traffic at night in many areas, that shine their confounding lights on potential plants. In a student project, we have now tried to collect data from plants at different distances from light sources (considering that light intensity decreases with distance from the source). Given the proximity of most street lights to other street lights, the distances to the light poles are 10-15 metres at most. I wonder if these small differences in light conditions will cause an observable effect in plants. We’ll see – if you don’t measure it, you will never know.

Regardless of the challenges, I still think this often overlooked driver of global change, being light pollution, is still highly relevant and interesting to study. I can’t help but wonder if these challenges are among the reasons why this is not so heavily studied? If anyone has brilliant ideas (pun intended) on how to create a dark place next to a lit place, let me know. I’d be happy to collaborate in any future experiment.

Four is a good number

One thing that keeps coming back to me, over and over again, is the set of ‘unwritten rules’ in academia. Or maybe let’s call them guidelines. They’re more like rumours, really. I have heard them before I started my PhD. Then, from others, during my PhD, and now, since a while, I hear them in a different country… They seem to be persistent.

One of the rumours is about the number of papers you are supposed to produce as a researcher. I keep hearing all over the place that in order to make it (or secure your spot) in academia you need to write at least four papers a year. Then ‘you should be fine’.

Who makes these rules? I’d love to hear the theory behind this ridiculous rule from the genius that came up with this number.

Is this why MDPI journals exist?