Botany & Revolution

University of Wisconsin botanist Tim Allen tosses the salad of discontent.

By Erik Ness

(Isthmus, November 1, 2002)

I. Botany 140

The echoing lecture hall where UW botany professor Tim Allen holds court is practically an antique. The seats are made of cast iron and steam-curled wood. Lap desks flip out with a clattering racket. A pencil dropped is a pencil heard. In the back, a battery of slide projectors huffs along in general defiance of the PowerPoint movement.

As with any first day of class, the students are buzzing, even as the lights dim and strains of Vivaldi flow in. Apparently random images flash on the walls—kidney bean, embryo, a lemon, a woman’s breast—and the room quiets a bit. The pictures are of everyday objects, some artsy snapshots, some still-life paintings. When the students realize all this is more than picturesque prologue, the last few chatterboxes are loudly shushed by their peers.

Peach, buttock, pepper, ear. The general theme is obvious: Nature informs design, but the filmsilver symphony is wide open to interpretation. Mushroom cloud….

Allen takes the podium and starts reading from a vigorous essay on the making of salads: “Their failure, as with main dishes, is caused not by technically incompetent cooking, but by mean, lazy and ignorant shopping. If you cannot get good olive oil, give up. If you are too poor or mean to afford olive oil, too lazy to go to Italian shops or too vainly preoccupied with your weight to use it lavishly, give up. There are no substitutes.”

Plying his accessible British accent, Allen reads the entire piece, for after all, this is “Botany 140: Plants and Man.” A good salad embodies much of that complex relationship.

Each semester, the UW-Madison’s science requirement sends hundreds of nonscientists in search of an interesting credit ride, and, among the more daring, this class has developed a cult following. It’s not an easy A, but you can brew beer in lieu of a term paper, and there is little danger of falling asleep in class. And while showmanship is part of the draw, Allen also allows access: in a class with an enrollment between 300 and 400, Allen will get to know as many as 30 or 40 students. Not bad for a big, impersonal university lecture course.

“This course is about maintaining proper standards, and damn it, I am the man for the job,” Allen declares, still on the floor.

He’s also out to shake his students up. “Let me point out, I hate liberals,” he says. “There is nothing more conservative than a Madison liberal. I hate radicals—self-satisfied bastards. I think they’re awful, aren’t they?” Allen doesn’t leave time for reaction. “Young Republicans do not even represent a moving target in this course.”

In sum: “I will violate your worldview. That’s the point.”

II. The science of messy situations

In many ways, Tim Allen is an old-fashioned botanist. “I know the life cycle of ficus, and I rejoice in it,” he tells me. “I’m aware of all the things that chaps with brass microscopes and mahogany benches used to know.”

Yet in other respects, Allen is a revolutionary in his approach to teaching and his chosen discipline. He’s a gadfly on the ass of lazy thinking, and he likes to bite. He rails against the limits of reductionist science, where white coats spend an entire professional life parsing the molecular intricacies of algal photosynthesis without ever swimming in the larger sea of scientific inquiry. He encourages his colleagues and his students alike to step outside the box.

Allen grew up in London in a rambling Victorian mansion. He was not an exceptional student; he never could stay focused on the precise problem at hand, and was always rushing after digressions. As a young man he enjoyed the theater, once playing Ophelia to the Hamlet of nascent British film star Derek Jacobi (Senator Gracchus in Gladiator). He went to University College of North Wales, Bangor, and for a time became a serious rock climber. Before coming to the UW-Madison in 1970, he taught at the University of Ife, Nigeria. He’s been in Madison longer than anywhere, with an American wife and three kids, but insists, “I remain English. Even if was a naturalized American, which I’m not, my reflexes are all there.”

I first spoke with Allen more than a year ago while working on a story about the Madison meeting of the Ecological Society of America. His perspective on ecology was so different from the other scientists I talked to that I couldn’t find a way to fit it in. Intrigued, I began to poke around. One student told me about an informal seminar, Systems Sandbox. Allen allowed me to attend, then jumped me. When nobody offered a burning topic for discussion, Allen volunteered me—mouth stuffed with linguini—as an opportunity for them to learn about journalism. Many scientists are justifiably leery of the press, and what followed was a lively discussion about media and society. I have been a sandbox regular since.

Allen’s technical field is statistical methods of analyzing vegetation, but his passion is systems thinking. Allen calls systems thinking the science of messy situations, and he’s helped develop a subset called hierarchy theory. An important part of systems thinking, he says, is “an ability to change levels of analysis, and a willingness to do so.”

For example, the classic food chain is defined by who’s eating whom: The guy above eats the guy below. So, if you’re looking at an arctic caribou herd, clearly the wolf eats the caribou, putting the wolf on top. But the view from above is rather different, with a great big, stable, slow moving herd and the wolf pack nipping at its edges.

“The caribou is the context of the wolf pack, and therefore is at a higher level,” says Allen. “Here the criterion is not ‘eats,’ but ‘depends on.’’’ If you’re looking at how nitrogen moves around the landscape, then the animals are more or less equal. “It all depends on your level of analysis. And you have to take responsibility for your level of analysis.”

I don’t understand Allen all the time, but then neither do his professional colleagues. That’s John Norman’s dilemma. A soil scientist who spends his days building models and new instruments, Norman has begun collaborating with Allen after a career in the mainstream of established science.

Although Norman says he and Allen work in areas as “mutually exclusive as you can find,” the pair hooked up to study how complexity in a natural system affects energy dynamics. Allen, being a theorist, doesn’t do much experimentation, so Norman provided the experimental know-how for a study to test Allen’s ideas.

The experiment, conducted largely by two of Allen’s graduate students, involved soybeans and specialized greenhouses with low-power wind tunnels. The essential question: Would a more complex system run hotter or cooler?

“I have to confess that even when we started the experiment, I still did not understand what he was trying to explain to me,” says Norman. “I went and got papers. I could understand the thermodynamics. I knew the equations. I just didn’t understand it intuitively.”

Norman set about trying to “set up an experiment that was going to mess up his hypothesis—that’s what you do with experiments.” In the end, he says, neither he nor Allen were correct in their assumptions about how the experiment would turn out. “But,’” says Norman, it turns out Tim was more right than I was.”

Indeed; when the two started working together they hoped that Norman’s establishment patina would rub off on Allen. Instead, it ran in reverse: “You can tell from the reviews that come back that they [other scientists] think we’re crackpots,” says Norman. “I think there is some real important science in his ideas, and I would love to work on them, but we haven’t been successful in shaking the money tree. It’s too threatening, I think, to people who have invested so much of their career in bean counting. And I would put myself in that category.”

To hear Norman talk, one wonders just how profoundly Allen has shaken his worldview. “Modern Science is really a pretty repulsive process,” he says. “The whole peer-review system is an exercise in mediocrity. [If] people understand what you’re proposing, they’ll support you. If they don’t, they won’t.”

The problem is, sometimes people with good ideas can’t get support. “You can cut off the best and you can cut off the worst. If you become influenced by somebody like Tim, you’re going to end up on one end or the other. I guess, in all fairness, I’m not sure which end I’m on. I’m not sure whether the stuff is useless, or whether the stuff is so innovative they don’t appreciate it.”

But what most impresses Norman about Allen isn’t the power of his ideas but his personal energy. Even at 60, Allen possesses that till-dawn bull-session energy that most of us know best in college.

“Every day is like that with him,” says Norman. “Every conversation you have is like that. “

III. Drunk under the lamppost

Allen has a bone to pick with fellow ecologists. “Ecology is insecure and self-conscious. I don’t quite know why, because there are lots of very smart people in it.” Allen is not the only one who has noticed this tendency, sometimes called physics envy. “The tragedy of it is, the envy is for Newtonian tidiness, not the penetrating logic of quantum mechanics.”

Allen’s intellectual influences include John Curtis, the UW botanist honored by the Arboretum’s Curtis Prairie. By coincidence, he got the job in part because Curtis’ widow had seen him lecture and was impressed. “He did wonderful things in terms of how to get the system extremely well-described,” says Allen of Curtis’ groundbreaking work Vegetation of Wisconsin. Then ecology began looking for mechanisms to explain the patterns Curtis and others were describing. “The last 30 years, ecology has been on this mechanistic binge,” says Allen. “The trouble is they’re doing the experiments before the system has been adequately described.” The result is what Allen calls drunk-under-the-lamppost science: “The drunk under the lamppost is looking for his keys, right? He dropped them down the street, where it’s hard to find them, but he’s looking under the lamppost because that’s where it is easy to look.”

As a teacher, Allen likes to disrupt his students’ assumptions about botany and everything else. “I throw my students over the edge,” he sometimes tells his classes, “but I promise to bring you back.”

Tania Havlicek, a garrulous grad student who has helped teach Allen’s “Plants and Man” course, praises his accessibility. The first time they spoke was for two hours, after Allen spent an hour on the phone with her mother. Havlicek is also impressed by the elasticity of Allen’s ideas. “The nature of complexity theory and hierarchy theory is it’s an abstraction and a framework of thinking about thinking,” she says. “While he commonly applies it to ecology, he can apply it to so many other fields.”

In a science culture dominated by publish or perish, why does Allen put so much time and effort into teaching underclassmen who won’t even become scientists? “I do my best thinking on the podium, or chatting with friends in the bar,” he explains. “It clarifies my own thoughts for me. I get some of my best theories off the top of my head, in front of an audience of 300 people. And I’ve got guts enough to try it on in front of 300 people.”

And what exactly is the academic value in brewing beer? “You learn about biological processes, you learn about infections, you learn about being careful, being clean—all things that are crucial to science,” says Allen. “As well as learning a useful skill. Brewing is legal and a wholesome activity.”.

Grading it, however, is another story. “Some of them are absolutely spectacular,” says Allen. “Most of them are not. Grading beer turns into hard work almost immediately. At that point, the willing assistants who come in to help me claim things like ‘I’m not being paid to drink this, but you are.’”

IV. Do it like ants

Rarely has Allen’s theoretical work had easily explained implications for the rest of us, but that time has come. One of his recent concerns is how the world will wean itself from fossil fuels. We all know the dilemma: In the morning we empty our wallet to fill the gas tank, in the evening we watch the evening news with gloomy reports on climate change and global conflicts linked to access to oil. Something has to give.

Allen likes to plot the rise of various phases of energy use along with the rise and fall of empire. In his view, we are currently “coming off the back side” of a fossil-fuel binge that has already radically restructured society. Given current trends—rising prices as well as global tensions and climatic considerations—that binge cannot continue. “We’ve got to shift from carbon fuel to something else. Or, we’ve got to start using carbon fuel in a radically different way.”

By way of illustration, Allen points to competing approaches employed by one of the planet’s other prominent life forms: ants.

Some species of ants use caterpillar dung to grow the fungus they live on. The dung is a scarce, high-quality resource, already processed, and the ant social structure is adapted to collect and use it. Then there are the leaf-cutter ants. They also rely on fungus, but instead of collecting caterpillar dung, they denude the surrounding vegetation of low-quality leaf material that they then process themselves to grow the fungus. In fact, our high-quality fossil fuels are little more than caterpillar dung. We can make the transition to renewable energy, says Allen, by becoming leaf-cutters and manufacturing our own dung, so to speak. But there’s a catch: Like the leaf-cutter ants, we’ll need to transform large swaths of landscape to capture and utilize renewable energy. The result may be anything but environmentally friendly.

“When you go to renewable resources, all the greenies think it’s nirvana and biodiversity will improve,” chuckles Allen. “I’m telling you, biodiversity will get worse, because you’re going to have to dynamite the entire West Coast to do it, to capture the waves.”

Even as he fleshes out this depressing landscape, Allen does it with style. His paper on the topic, co-authored with several other scientists and published in the journal” BioScience, includes quotes from Rudyard Kipling, Norman Mailer and two of Robert Pirsig’s books, Lila and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. “Dragnet’s Joe Friday plays a pivotal role, and there are playful references to Ghostbusters and President Clinton’s famous line, “It depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is.” It is not your ordinary scientific paper.

And even though Allen is first and foremost a scientist, he understands the political obstacles to the development of energy alternatives, starting with the two guys at the top: Cheney and Bush. A presidential ticket with two oil men scares the bejesus out of me,” he says. “It’s not that they are Republicans. No: if you have concrete Republicans—bribing governors to build the interstate—they, would realize that renewable resources, like waves or wind, require a lot of concrete to build infrastructure: They would move us into renewable resources.”

v. Pass the salad

“Do you have an opinion about Tim Allen?” I ask a botanist friend. “How could I not have an opinion about Tim Allen?” came the reply.

“He’s out there,” says another. “I’m glad he’s out there, but he’s out there.” Others are not so glad. They describe him with words like “wacky,” and “not applied.” “If he’d only do some experiments.” “No comment….”

That’s not the consensus at the Systems Sandbox. After I’d attended for several months, I approached two of the grad-student regulars, who’ve been coming for three and four years, respectively. Both agree: In class they learn how to use tools; here they learn to think.

These weekly lunch-hour meetings are held in Allen’s lab, and he’s both host and chef. Typical fare is two large skillets—one vegetarian, one meat—and a starch pot. The food is often exquisite, filled with freelance spices of a Mediterranean bent. Sometimes the meat is donated venison; last semester included guest cooking from a visiting Italian scholar. Salad and bread are bought by passing the hat.

Campus is filled with these lunchtime roundtables, usually a prepared presentation with brown-bag fare. Allen reverses the queue: It is the food that is prepared, while the discourse is strictly whatever is burning a hole in somebody’s mind.

Topics range from chronic wasting disease to the metaphysics of object-oriented programming to properly charting an academic career. If no question presents itself, Allen will often pick a student and have him describe his research. With students and faculty from all over the university, the diversity and spontaneity lead to free-ranging conversations that can begin with the dynamics of elk grazing and end up exploring neural nets.

Among his many memorable’ pronouncements, Allen cautions against putting too much faith in science, and in remembering its limitations.

“Scientists tell you what are the consequences of making certain assumptions; they don’t tell you what assumptions you should make. That is why invoking scientists in an abortion debate to tell you what your values should be is completely bogus. What scientists do is say, ‘If you make this decision, then the consequences are da de da.’ And they are very accurate on the da de da. But you have to take responsibility for your decisions.”

Despite all this, Allen keeps plugging passionately away. But even as he rails on his colleagues, he still calls science the best game in town. “We need reductionist science. It is often the best information we’ve got.”

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Copyright 2005 by Erik Ness

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