Book review – The Quantum Realm: Philly the Photon by Mark A Montgomery

TQR BOOK COVERI spend my working life helping to repackage scientific findings into formats that allow them to reach new audiences, namely plain-language summaries and podcasts. So, when I was introduced to a SciFi novella for children that prominently features quantum physics, I was intrigued.

Quantum physics (also known as quantum mechanics) is a theory that describes nature at very small scales, at the level of atoms and the ‘subatomic’ particles they consist of. One such subatomic particle known as a photon carries light and other electromagnetic energy.

In The Quantum Realm: Philly the Photon, we meet a boy called Sebastian. After being scared by a thunderstorm, Sebastian’s father encourages Sebastian to ask questions about the nature of light. That night Sebastian has a vivid dream in which he enters the Quantum Realm, leading to an adventure in search of Grunk the Great Graviton (AKA  gravitational force). Along the way, Sebastian confronts some of his fears and learns more about quantum physics.

I have mixed feelings about this story. Some parts of it were rather entertaining and I liked how Mark A Montgomery introduces various concepts in quantum physics in the form of sentient beings that Sebastian can talk to. The characteristics of these characters has clearly been carefully thought through to reflect the nature of the particles they represent, for example, Philly the Photon is very excitable while Grunk lurks deeper within the Quantum Realm, reflecting how the gravitational force is present in atoms but not as important as the other forces at play. However, I wasn’t totally convinced by Sebastian’s character because in much of the dialogue he comes across as being much older than the young boy we meet at the beginning of the story.

I also found it quite hard to keep up with all the new information (and characters) that were introduced along the way. Admittedly, this could be partly because I’m a sleep-deprived new parent, but it does worry me because, although I am not an expert in particle physics, I am not a complete stranger to it. The sheer amount of information packed into the story’s 94 pages may be off-putting to school students who aren’t already pretty interested in physics.

Overall, I think this book is a fun story that provides a different way to learn about the basics of quantum physics and the scientific method. I think it would be of interest to educators who are looking for an unusual way to introduce quantum physics to their students, perhaps in extracurricular science clubs. Montgomery promises to return to the Quantum Realm so it will be interesting to see where the story goes next.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book from a book publicity company. The views are my own.

A community repository of plant illustrations

Guest post by Erin Sparks, Guillaume Lobet, Larry York and Frédéric Bouché

Plant illustration resource.png

It is midnight on a cold winter evening and you are scheduled to give a seminar at 8 am the next morning. All you are missing to complete your presentation is one last graphic to illustrate your conclusions. You wearily open Adobe Illustrator, stare at a blank artboard and think “isn’t there a better way?” What if there was a place where you could access community plant illustrations to use or modify? Good news! A Plant Illustrations Repository is now available to the plant scientific community!

In a time when scientific communication is becoming increasingly important, one method of communication is through illustrations and graphics. For example, graphical abstracts are now frequently employed by journals to summarize the contents of a manuscript and provide a visual overview of the work. These graphics are generated in programs such as Adobe Illustrator, Inkscape, or even PowerPoint. For additional information about graphical abstracts, we refer the reader to this blog post and a recent webinar by Fred entitled: “Communicate your Research Efficiently Using Graphical Abstracts” hosted by Plantae and the American Society of Plant Biologists.

In an effort to promote scientific communication and the use of graphical abstracts, we have initiated a repository for community-generated pictures and vector graphic illustrations of plants. It takes a lot of effort to make vector graphics so we might as well share them among the community. Thus our goal was to provide a central location where plant scientists can contribute their images and graphics to be used or modified by others (and you get credit for it!).

We decided to use a figshare Collection for a couple of reasons:

  • It is free to use and any scientist can deposit data there in a couple of clicks.
  • One dataset can contain more than one file (for instance, .ai + .png + .pdf).
  • It provides unlimited storage for data that are made public.
  • It provides each public dataset with a doi (digital online identifier), which make citation possible, even for a single figure.
  • Finally, the Collection feature of figshare allows us to collect images and illustrations from multiple accounts (yours!) into a single place and to present it nicely!

We invite you to visit the Plant Illustrations Repository to learn more about contributing and utilizing this resource.

Happy Communicating!

Erin, Guillaume, Larry and Fred


Erin Sparks is a Postdoc with Philip Benfey at Duke University and her recent work focuses on understanding the development and function of maize brace roots. You can follow Erin on Twitter @ErinSparksPhD

Guillaume Lobet is an Associate Professor at the Forschungszentrum Jülich in Germany and the Université catholique de Louvain in Belgium. His work focuses on the development of whole plant models. You can follow Guillaume on Twitter @guillaumelobet

Larry York is an Assistant Professor at The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation in Ardmore, OK, USA. His work focuses on root functional phenomics including high-throughput phenotyping of root system architecture and physiology. You can follow Larry on Twitter @LarryMattYork

Frédéric Bouché is a Postdoc with Rick Amasino at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His work focuses on the identification of the genetic mechanisms controlling the timing of flowering in the model grass Brachypodium, a species closely related to wheat, barley, and oats. You can follow Fred on Twitter @Frederic_Bouche

Note: This post has been published on several sites on the same day to help spread the word about this new community resource.

The rules of spacing

Guest post by Luke Simon

I was at a Christmas party in conversation with a local engineer who, hearing I design food forests, wanted to pick my brain on apple trees. He had six trees in two rows of three, well spaced in his backyard. He was throwing out terms about the mainstream organic sprays he was using, and framed his questions expecting me to know some super organic spray, or spray regimen, that would fix his problems of pests and low vigor in general. I don’t think he expected the answer I gave: ‘What’s planted around the trees?’

We often think of the rules of spacing as rules for keeping other plants away from each other. In practice I find the lines blur between species, and enters a much more broad science: it’s what should be included near the plant, as well as what shouldn’t. Between these two aspects, you make or break the majority of fruit tree problems.

The lines often blur between species because, let’s face it, plants don’t grow in a vacuum and always have something growing up against them. In this guy’s case, his trees were planted right into his lawn. They were in competition with the grass.

Looking at their history, grass and trees are in most cases nemesis of one another. Trees make forest; but grass needs open space. The setting in most yards of trees with grass between is quite artificial, and only exists because we keep the grass mowed. In any other situation, trees would take over.

The prairies are the kingdom of grass, and these occured because of rain shadows, or areas where circumstances such as the Rocky Mountain range messed with the winds that carry rain, creating droughts in one part of the year, and near flooding in another. Trees don’t like that, because most have relatively shallow roots, as much as 80 percent residing in the top three feet of soil depending on the kind and its conditions; but prairie plants, such as the grasses, and Nitrogen fixers like Senna hebecarpa, put roots down unusually deep, so reach the water table whether rain comes or not.


An experiment showing the root growth of Red Delicious apple tree two years after planting.

Have you ever wondered as you pass woods how the trees survive so close? If you were planting an oak tree in your yard that would someday reach a hundred foot tall, can you imagine the spacing recommendations? They would be over fifty feet apart. Most yards couldn’t fit more than one tree. But in the woods they stand on top of each other, growing for hundreds of years, happy, and healthy.

Studies have shown that trees can grow their roots deep into the ground, but prefer to keep their roots higher in the soil if possible. There is more organic matter, hence nutrients and water, in this layer. If there isn’t, trees will try to put in the work to grow deeper. This is a lot more work, and certainly isn’t their first choice.

What trees really prefer is building networks in which they share and preserve resources. For instance, trees have what is called hydraulic redistibution, which is a fancy term for moving water not only up for their own use, but back down into the soil for storage, and horizontally to other plants. Peter Wholleben, in his book The Hidden Life of Trees recalls his surprise when he found a ring of roots from a beech tree that must have been cut down well over a century beforehand, but still had green, living roots showing above ground. It had no leaves, and the stump was gone. As he explained, citing various studies, the living trees around this ancient (should be dead) tree were feeding it sugars made in their leaves, keeping it alive. Likely, they got some kind of kickback from the extended root system because it allowed them access to more resources.

This is in ancient, established forests, so conditions aren’t quite the same for our young transplants. We can get some similar effects by growing fruit trees in more open settings, or riparian zones. These are zones similar to fencerows and overgrown fields where grasses are just converting to trees. These zones are iconically untidy and wild; but skillful gardeners know the elements of these zones, like clay in a potters hand, have the best potential to form the most beautiful, lush gardens.

Riparian zones have many layers, with notably high numbers of low growing herbaceous and woody shrubs, many of which are nitrogen fixers. The quickest way to simulate this ecology is making ‘guilds’ of plants right around your fruit trees. Here is my manual of bed building for info on quickly clearing grass without tillage. Plan on expanding these plantings every year until the beds around your trees meet. If the tree is older, and larger, the bed should extend at least a couple feet beyond its drip line.


An example guild. 1. Fruit tree 2. Comfrey 3. Siberian Peashrub 4. Amorpha fruticosa 5. Japanese Wineraspberry 6. Honeyberry 7. Blueberry 8. Turkish Rocket 9. Crambe cordifolia 10. Stepping stones, (or in this case, stepping logs). The green base is a ground cover of mint.

Any guild should include at least 2 woody nitrogen fixing plants, about 5 plants that do not fix nitrogen but can be cut for mulch, such as comfrey, or a groundcover of something like mint, then several fruiting shrubs like raspberry or honeyberry, and some perennial vegetables.

This is the best method if you already have fruit trees in the ground, like our engineer friend. If you’re just planning your food forest, Robert Hart, the father of the northern food forests, recommended planting full size or standard fruit trees at recommended spacing for their size, in rows like any orchard, but then semi standard or medium trees, then dwarf trees, then shrubs, then herbaceous plants, then vines to climb and fill in the cracks between them.


I’d recommend mulching as much as you can, and planting that area with a complete planting like this. The space should be completly filled with plants, and will establish faster with less work overall.

This system gives quite attractive results that are increasingly less cost and labor than serial applications of even organic, clay-based sprays, pyrethrums and neems, let alone harsher chemicals. There is work later on, but this is of course debatable, because its mostly harvests of fruit. Sounds like pleasant work to me.

This article was originally published on Mortal Tree on 24th February 2017.

About the author: Luke Simon is garden manager for Simon Certified Organic Family Farm, and on his own time a permanent edible landscape designer in Ohio, United States. He is the author of PASSIVE Gardening and Mastering the Growing Edge. Follow him on his blog, Mortal Tree, and his Instagram @mortal_tree.


Yucca aloifolia, the plant that’s found a reverse gear

Guest post by Alun Salt

If you’re a plant, then having a pollinator you can rely on seems like a good idea. Yucca plants have a partnership with Yucca moths. Yucca plants have flowers that are specialised for Yucca moths. The payback is that Yucca moths can’t find food so easily anywhere else, because they’re now adapted to access Yucca flowers. A Yucca plant can provide food, knowing its pollen won’t be wasted by a pollinator that visits other species of plant. It sounds like a good deal, but it’s also a dead end.

When plants and pollinators become dependent, a threat to one can wipe out the other. For example, if a new blight hit Yucca plants, the Yucca moth would find its food source had disappeared, and it would starve to extinction itself. Once a species has specialised it’s very hard to dismantle adaptations and build new ones. Continue reading