1989/03: Secret Live of Plants: Chapter 5 – Latest Soviet Discoveries

Latest Soviet Discoveries

In Russia, millions of newspaper readers were introduced to the ideas that plants communicate their feelings to man in October, 1970, when Pravda published an article entitled “What Leaves Tell Us.



“Plants talk . . . yes, they scream,” declared the official organ of the Communist party. “It only seems that they accept their misfortunes submissively and silently bear pain.”


Pravda’s reporter, V. Chertkov, tells how he witnessed these extraordinary goings-on in Moscow when he visited the Laboratory forArtificial Climate at the renowned Timiryazev Academy of Agricultural Sciences. Before my eyes a barley sprout literally cried out when its roots were plunged into hot water. True, the plant’s “voice” was registered only by a special and extremely sensitive electronic instrument which revealed a “bottomless vale of tears” on a broad paper band. As though it had gone crazy, the recording pen wriggled out on the white track the death agony of the barley sprout, although, to look at the little plant itself, one would never have guessed what it was going through. While its leaves, green  as ever, stood upright, the plant’s “organism” was already dying. Some kind of “brain” cells within it were telling us what was happening.


Pravda’s reporter also interviewed Professor Ivan Isidorovich Gunar, head of the academy’s Department of Plant Physiology, who, together with his staff, had performed hundreds of experiments, all of which confirm the presence of electrical impulses in plants similar to the well-known nerve impulses in man. The Pravda article noted that Gunar talked about plants as he would about people, distinguishing their individual habits, characteristics, and proclivities. “He even appears to converse with them,” Chertkov wrote,

  • and it seems to me that his plants pay attention to this good, graying man. Only persons invested with certain power are like this. I have even been told of a test pilot who talked to his misbehaving airplane, and I myself have met an old captain who talked with his ship.”

When Gunar’s chief assistant, Leonid A. Panishkin, a former engineer, was asked by the Pravda reporter why he gave up the technology in which he was trained in order to work in Gunar’s laboratory, he replied: “Well, there I used to be involved with metallurgy; here there is life.” He was echoed by another young laboratory worker, Tatiana Tsimbalist, who affirmed that since she had come to work with Gunar she had “learned to look at nature with different eyes.” Panishkin said he was particularly interested in searching out those conditions which might best suit the specific needs of plants and how

  • our green friends”—as the Pravda reporter termed them—react to light and darkness. By using a special lamp which shone with the same intensity as the sun’s rays reaching earth he had found that plants tired in an overextended day and needed rest at night. He hoped that it might one day be possible for plants to turn lights on or off in a greenhouse at will: “a live electric relay.”

The studies of the Gunar team may open up new vistas in plant breeding, since in their laboratory it has been found that individual plants more resistant to heat, cold, and other climatological factors can be “selected” within minutes by testing them with their instruments, although these qualities have heretofore taken geneticists years to establish.


In the summer of 1971, an American delegation from the Association for Research and Enlightenment (ARE), founded by the seer and healer Edgar Cayce at Virginia Beach, Virginia, visited Russia. The Americans—four medical doctors, two psychologists, one physicist, and two educators—were shown a film by Panishkin entitled Are Plants Sentient? The film demonstrated effects produced on plants by environmental factors such as sunlight, wind, clouds, the dark of night, the tactual stimulus from flies and bees, injuries produced by chemicals and burning, and even the very proximity of a vine to a structure to which it might cling. The film showed further that the immersion of a plant in chloroform vapor eliminates the characteristic biopotential pulse normally apparent when a leaf is given a sharp blow; it also indicated that the Russians are now studying the characteristics of these pulses to establish the relative degree of a plant’s health.


One of the American doctors, William McGarey, head of the ARE medical research center in Phoenix, Arizona, stated in his report that the intriguing part of the movie was the method used to record the data. Time-lapse photography made the plants seem to dance as they grew. Flowers opened and closed with the coming of darkness as if they were creatures living in a different time zone. All injury-induced changes were recorded by a sensitive polygraph attached to the plants.


In April, 1972, Weltwoche, a Swiss newspaper published in Zurich, came out with an account of both Backster’s and Gunar’s work which it said had taken place simultaneously and independently. That same week the Swiss article was translated into Russian in a weekly review of the foreign press, Za Rubezhom (Abroad) published in Moscow by the USSR’s Union of Journalists, under the caption: “The Wonderful World of Plants.” These scientists, said the Russian version, are

  • proposing that plants receive signals and transmit them through special channels to a given center, where they process the information and prepare answering reactions. This nervous center could be located in root tissues which expand and contract like heart muscle in man. The experiments showed that plants have a definite life rhythm and die when they don’t get regular periods of rest and quiet.”

The Weltwoche article also caught the attention of the editors of the Moscow newspaper Izvestiya, who assigned their reporter M. Matveyev to do a story for the paper’s weekly magazine supplement. Though the newsman referred to Backster’s suggestion that plants might have memory, language, and even rudiments of altruism, he strangely omitted Backster’s most startling discovery, that his philodendron had perceived his intent to harm it.


Deciding (the Izvestiya reporter told his readers) that a “sensation was being propagated in Western newspapers,” Matveyev traveled to Leningrad, where he interviewed Vladimir Grigorievich Karamanov, director of the Laboratory of Biocybernetics of the Institute of Agrophysics, in order to get an authoritative opinion.


The Institute of Agrophysics was founded over forty years ago at the behest of the renowned solid-state physicist, Academician Abram Feodorovich Ioffe, who became particularly interested in the practical application of physics to the design of new products, first in industry, then in agriculture. After the institute opened its doors, Karamanov, then a young biologist, was inspired by Ioffe to familiarize himself with the world of semiconductors and cybernetics and, in due course, began building microthermistors, weight tensiometers, and other instruments to register the temperature of plants, the flow rate of fluid in their stems and leaves, the intensity of their transpiration, their growth rates, and characteristics of their radiation. He was soon picking up detailed information on when and how much a plant wants to drink, whether it craves more nourishment or is too hot or cold. In the first issue of Reports of the USSR Academy of Sciences for 1959, Karamanov published “The Application of Automation and Cybernetics to Plant Husbandry.”


According to the Izvestiya reporter, Karamanov showed that an ordinary bean plant had acquired the equivalent of “hands” to signal an instrumental brain how much light it needed. When the brain sent the “hands” signals, “they had only to press a switch, and the plant was thus afforded the capability of independently establishing the optimal length of its ‘day’ and ‘night.’” Later, the same bean plant, having acquired the equivalent of “legs,” was able instrumentally to signal whenever it wanted water. “Showing itself to be a fully rational being,” the account continued, “it did not guzzle the water indiscriminately but limited itself to a two-minute drink each hour, thus regulating its water need with the help of an artificial mechanism. “This was a genuine scientific and technical sensation,” concluded the Izvestiya reporter, “a clear demonstration of twentieth-century man’s technical abilities.


Asked whether he thought Backster had discovered something new, Karamanov somewhat condescendingly replied:

  • “Nothing of the sort! That plants are able to perceive the surrounding world is a truth as old as the world itself. Without perception, adaptation does not and cannot exist. If plants had no sense organs and didn’t have a means of transmitting and processing information with their own language and memory, they would inevitably perish.”

Karamanov, who throughout the interview made not a single comment on plants’ ability to perceive human thought and emotion—Backster’s really sensational discovery—and seemed oblivious of Backster’s success in getting his philodendron to recognize a “plant assassin,” rhetorically asked the Izvestiya reporter: “Can plants discern shapes? Can they, for instance, differentiate a man causing them hurt from another who waters them?” Replying to his own question, while at the same time putting Backster into what he considered to be a proper perspective for Soviet readers, Karamanov said:

  • “Today I cannot answer such a question. And not because I doubt that Backster’s experiments were immaculately set up and repeatedly performed, though perhaps a door slammed, or a draft wafted into the room, or something else. The fact is that neither he, nor we, nor anyone else in the world is yet ready to decipher all plant responses, hear and understand what they ‘say’ to one another, or what they ‘shout’ at us.”

Karamanov also predicted that in the long run it would be possible cybernetically to direct all the physiological processes of plants not, as he put it, “for the sake of sensation, but for the advantage of plants themselves.” When plants are able to auto-regulate their environment and establish optimal conditions for their own growth with the help of electronic instruments, said Karamanov, this should be a long step toward larger harvests of cereal grains, vegetables, and fruits. Making clear that the achievements were not just around the corner, Karamanov added,

  • We are not still learning to talk with plants and understand their peculiar language. We are working out criteria which will help us to control the life of plants. Along this difficult but fascinating road, a multitude of surprises still await us.”

The Izvestiya article was followed that summer by a story in the monthly magazine Nauka i Religiya (Science and Religion), which has the dual aim of putting forward the latest findings in world science while at the same time playing down—in a section headed “The Theory and Practice of Atheism”—the church-defended notion of a spiritual world hierarchically beyond that of man. The article’s author, engineer A. Merkulov, going further than the Izvestiya weekend supplement, recounted how the plant of the “American criminologist” Backster had not only responded to the scalding death of brine shrimp but also to the killer of its vegetal neighbor. Such response to people’s moods, added Merkulov, had also been detected at the state university in Alma Ata, capital of
the Soviet Kazakh Republic, the apple orchard of the Soviet Union. There scientists have found that plants repeatedly react to their owners’ illnesses and to their emotional states.


Noting that plants had long ago been shown to have “short-term memory,” Merkulov said that this fact too had been confirmed by the Kazakh scientists. Beans, potatoes, wheat, and crowfoot (Ranunculus) after proper “instruction” seemed to have the capability of remembering the frequency of flashes from a xenon-hydrogen lamp. The plants repeated the pulsations with what Merkulov called “exceptional accuracy,” and since crowfoot was able to repeat a given frequency after a pause as long as eighteen hours it was possible to speak of “long-term” memory in plants.


The scientists next went on, according to Merkulov, to condition a philodendron to recognize when a piece of mineralized rock was put beside it. Using the system developed by Pavlov with dogs, whereby he discovered the “conditioned reflex,” the Kazakh scientists simultaneously “punished” a philodendron with an electrical shock each time a mineralized ore was placed next to it. They reported that, after conditioning, the same plant, anticipating the hurtful shock, would get “emotionally upset” whenever the block of ore was put beside it. Furthermore, said the Kazakh scientists, the plant could distinguish between mineralized ore and a similar piece of barren rock containing no minerals, a feat which might indicate that plants will one day be used in geological prospecting.


Merkulov concluded his reportage with the idea that the control of all processes in plant growth was the ultimate goal of all the new experimentation. In an institute of physics in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, he wrote,

  • Physicists are even now regulating the growth of a monocellular seaweed, Chlorella. Experiments are continuing and becoming increasingly complex, and there is no doubt that in the not-distant future scientists will be able to control the growth, not only of the simplest, but of higher plants.

Merkulov beguiled his readers with the idea that this control might well bepossible over great distances. “By studying how to ‘understand’ plants,” he prophesied,

  • man may create automatic contrivances which themselves will watch over fields in such a way that, at any given moment, they can satisfy the every need of crops. The day is not far away when scientists will also work out a theory on the adaptation and resistance of plants to unpleasant conditions in their environment which will encompass how they react to irritants, and to stimulators and herbicides as well.”

Toward the end of 1972 Soviet readers were given more food for thought in an article “Flower Recall” published in the popular color-illustrated Znaniya Sila (Knowledge Is Power), one of the many magazines issued by the Knowledge Society, the leading organization for popular science in the USSR. This time its author was not a news-hungry journalist or an inspired engineer but a professor and doctor of psychological sciences, V. N. Pushkin. Far from suggesting that the American criminologist Backster had really not discovered anything new, Pushkin began with a complete description of Backster’s shrimp experiment. He then let his readers in on the fact that one of his young colleagues, V. M. Fetisov, had made him aware of Backster’s accomplishments in the first place, and had been so determined to work with the Backster Effect that he had persuaded Pushkin to take part in the experiments. Fetisov brought an ordinary potted geranium from his home and attached it to an encephalograph.


As Fetisov was making his first attempts to get a response from his pet plant, Georgi Angushev, a Bulgarian student working up a dissertation in psychology at the Lenin Pedagogical Institute in Moscow, heard about the Fetisov-Pushkin experiments and came to their laboratory to see what was going on. Pushkin described Angushev as a talented researcher with many qualities, the most important of which to their “psycho-botanical experiments,” as he termed them, was the fact that the Bulgarian was an excellent hypnotist.


Fetisov and Pushkin surmised that a hypnotized person should be able to send emotions to a plant more directly and spontaneously than a person in a normal state. Hypnotizing a young girl by the name of Tanya, who was described by Pushkin as of “lively temperament and spontaneous emotionality,” they first implanted in her the notion that she was one of the most beautiful women in the world, then the notion that she was freezing in harsh raw weather. At each change in the girl’s mood the plant, which was attached to an encephalograph, responded with an appropriate pattern on the graph. “We were able,” says Pushkin, “to get an electrical reaction as many times as we worked, even to the most arbitrary commands.


To obviate criticism that the plant’s response was only the result of chance events taking place in the room, the Muscovite psychologists switched on their encephalograph and let it run for long periods between their experiments. But the instrument never registered any reaction of the kind evoked in the plant by the emotions suggested to a hypnotized subject.


Pushkin and Fetisov decided to see whether the plant could detect a lie, as Backster had claimed. It was suggested to Tanya that she think of a number from 1 to 10. At the same time she was told she would never reveal the number, even if pressed to do so. When the researchers counted slowly from 1 to 10, pausing after each digit to inquire whether it was the one she had thought of, each time Tanya responded with a decisive “No!” Though the psychologists could not see any difference in her answers, the plant gave a specific and clear reaction to her internal state when the number 5 was counted. It was the number which Tanya had selected and promised not to reveal.


In his conclusion Pushkin stated that he felt strongly that by pursuing the course initiated by Backster it might be possible to make advances into the thorny problem of the human brain’s functioning, which Pavlov over half a century ago had called the “crown of earthly nature.” Seizing the opportunity for a political remark, Pushkin reminded those who might look askance at his and Fetisov’s new research that at the opening of Moscow Institute of Psychology in 1914 Pavlov had declared that the task of unlocking the mysteries of the brain and its activity was “so unexpressibly enormous and complex that it depends on the totality of thought’s resources, namely, complete freedom, and bold deviation from set patterns of research.”


Using Pavlov as a shield against what he obviously thought would be attacks from his professional colleagues, Pushkin stressed that the renowned physiologist’s statement was as up to date in 1972 as when he had made it. Lest his message not ring clear, he added: “Experience in the development of natural sciences, especially physics, has shown that one should not fear new discoveries, however paradoxical they might seem at first glance.


In his conclusion, the Moscow professor speculated that vegetal cells in the flower react to processes taking place in the nervous system of human subjects or in what is vaguely referred to as their “emotional states.” Seeking a meaning for the flower’s reaction, Pushkin wrote: “Perhaps between two informational systems, the plant cells and the nervous system, a specific link exists. The language of the plant cell may be related to that of the nerve cell. These wholly different living cells seemed to be able to ‘understand’ one another.”


Pushkin further theorized that in the cells of a flower there take place processes somehow related to mentation and asserted that man’s psyche—a word which he says is as yet entirely undefined even by the “ologists” of his own discipline—and the perception, thought, and memory connected to it are all just a specialization of processes existing at the level of vegetal cells.


Pushkin asserts that this conclusion is most important since it will open new thinking about the origin of the nervous system. Noting that in the development of science many different answers have been proposed for what constitutes the actual informational material in human thought, Pushkin skipped lightly over various theories, ranging from the one that holds nerve cells to be elements of a living cybernetic computer to the one which claims that not the cells but the molecules of matter within them may be the basic informational units.


What is actually irritating the flower?” asked Pushkin, then answered that it might turn out to be some kind of biophysical structure, the ejection of which beyond the confines of the human organism takes place the moment a marked emotional state is reached and carries information about the person from whom it is ejected. Whatever the truth may turn out to be, continued Pushkin, one thing is sure: “Research into the plant and man interrelationships can shed light on some of the most urgent problems in contemporary psychology.”


The magic and mystery of the world of plants lying behind these scientific doings have also recently become the subject of a new book entitled Grass by a popular slavophile writer, Vladimir Soloukhin, which appeared in four issues of the three-million-circulation magazine Nauka i Zhizn (Science and Life) at the end of 1972. Born a country boy in a village outside the ancient city of Vladimir in northern Russia, Soloukhin became fascinated with the Pravda account of Gunar’s work and wondered why it had not evoked more excitement among his fellow Russians.

Perhaps the elements of memory in plants are superficially treated,” he writes, “but at least there they are in black and white! Yet no one calls his friends or neighbors, no one shouts in a drunken voice over the telephone: Have you heard the news? Plants can feel! They can feel pain! They cry out! Plants remember everything!”


When Soloukhin began to telephone his own friends in excitement he learned from one of them that a prominent member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, working in Akademgorodok, the new town inhabited almost exclusively by research scientists on the outskirts of Siberia’s largest industrial center, Novosibirsk, had stated:

Don’t be amazed! We too are carrying out many experiments of this kind and they all point to one thing: plants have memory. They are able to gather impressions and retain them over long periods. We had a man molest, even torture, a geranium for several days in a row. He pinched it, tore it, pricked its leaves with a needle, dripped acid on its living tissues, burned it with a lighted match, and cut its roots. Another man took tender care of the same geranium, watered it, worked its soil, sprayed it with fresh water, supported its heavy branches, and treated its burns and wounds. When we electroded our instruments to the plant, what do you think? No sooner did the torturer come near the plant than the recorder of the instrument began to go wild. The plant didn’t just get “nervous”; it was afraid, it was horrified. If it could have, it would have either thrown itself out the window or attacked its torturer. Hardly had this inquisitor left and the good man taken his place near the plant than the geranium was appeased, its impulses died down, the recorder traced out smooth—one might almost say tender—lines on the graph.


In addition to a plant’s ability to recognize friend and foe, Soviet researchers also noted that one plant supplied with water can somehow share it with a deprived neighbor. In one institute of research a cornstalk planted in a glass container was denied water for several weeks. Yet it did not die; it remained as healthy as other cornstalks planted in normal conditions nearby. In some way, say Soviet botanists, water was transferred from healthy plants to the “prisoner” in the jar. Yet they have no idea how this was accomplished.


As fantastic as this may seem, a kind of plant-to-plant transfer has been taking place in England in experiments begun in 1972 by Dr. A. R. Bailey. Two plants in an artificially lit greenhouse in which temperature, humidity, and light were carefully controlled were suffering from lack of water. Bailey and his collaborator measured the voltages generated between two parts of both plants.


When one plant was watered from the outside through plastic tubes, the other plant reacted. As Bailey told the British Society of Dowsers: “There was no electrical connection between them, no physical connection whatsoever, but somehow one plant picked up what was going on with the other.” Soloukhin, in his book Grass, the title of which conveys, as with Carl Sandburg, Walt Whitman, or Pete Seeger, the most extended meaning of the word “grass,” or indeed everything growing, took to task the lack of sensitivity to the vegetal world around them on the part of the Soviet populace. Targets of his criticism included agricultural bureaucrats, individual collective farmers,
lumber executives, and even salesgirls in Moscow flower shops.


“Human observation,” writes Soloukhin ironically in the opening chapter of Grass, “is so precise that we begin to notice the very air we breathe only when it is insufficient for our needs. More exactly, I should say ‘value’ rather than ‘notice.’ We do not really value air, or even think about it, so long as we can breathe normally, without difficulty.” He adds that, though man prides himself on his vast array of knowledge, he is like a radio technician who knows how to repair a receiver without understanding the theoretical essence of radio waves, or like our cavemen ancestors who put fire to use while unaware of the process of rapid oxidation. Even today, says Soloukhin, we squander heat and light yet have not the slightest clue to, or interest in, their original essence.


Man is equally callous, says Soloukhin, about the fact that the land around him is green.

  • We trample grasses into dirt, we strip the land with bulldozers and caterpillar treads, we cover it with concrete and hot asphalt. Disposing of wastes from our infernal industrial machines we dump upon it crude oil, rubbish, acids, alkalis, and other poisons. But is there that much grass? I, for one, can imagine man in a boundless, grassless wilderness, the product of a cosmic, or perhaps humanly non-cosmic, catastrophe.”

Seeking to re-evoke wonder for nature in the hearts of an overurbanized Soviet youth, Soloukhin tells the story of a prisoner who, incarcerated in a dank cell, finds among the pages of an old book, given him by a kindly jailer, a tiny seed smaller than a pinhead. Overcome with emotion at the first visible sign of real life he has seen for years, the prisoner imagines that the microscopic seed is all that remains from the former luxuriant and festive plant kingdom in the great world outside the prison. Planting the seed in a bit of earth in the sole corner of the cell afforded a ray of sunlight, and watering it with his tears, the prisoner waits for a wonder to unfold.


Soloukhin accepts this wonder as a true miracle ignored by man only because it is repeated thousands of billions of times daily. Even if all the world’s chemical and physical laboratories with their complex reagents, precise analyses, and electronic microscopes were placed at the prisoner’s disposal, he continues, even if the prisoner studied the seed’s every cell, atom, and atomic nucleus, he still would not be able to read the mysterious program lying within the seed, to lift the impenetrable veil which could cause it to transform itself into a juicy carrot, a branch of sweet-scented dill, or a radiant-colored aster.


Soloukhin was fascinated with the statement by I. Zabelin, doctor of geographical sciences and Moscow University professor, who in his article “Dangerous Delusions” in one of the USSR’s leading opinion forums, Literaturnaya Gazetta, wrote: “We are only beginning to comprehend the language of nature, its soul, its reason. The ‘inner world’ of plants is hidden from our gaze behind seventy-seven seals.” Though these lines were in no way emphasized in the printed column, says Soloukhin, “they appeared to me as bold-face type.”


During a trip to Paris, Soloukhin was happy to observe florist shops scattered in all, and even the poorest, districts of the French capital. Finding a decent bouquet of flowers in the Soviet capital, he says, can become the object of a day-long search.


Soloukhin has recently attacked the obtuse views of Soviet agricultural officials. Writing in the October, 1972, issue of Literaturnaya Gazetta, he deplores the abandon with which generations-old natural Russian meadowlands have been allowed to deteriorate while fields needed for cereal crops are being plowed and planted to grasses for animal fodder. “We could cover Europe with hay and green grass from our meadows and build a haystack extending from the Mediterranean to Scandinavia,” writes Soloukhin. “Well, why don’t we?” His rhetorical question only provoked an angry rebuttal from the USSR’s Deputy Minister of Agriculture, who insisted on upholding the status quo. In a battle similar to that taking place in the United States and other countries, Soloukhin is unremittingly denouncing unecologically minded industrialists in his country, who are turning the rivers and lakes into cesspools, and despoiling its forests, all in the name of increased production. Seeking to reverse a half century of Communist dicta, this “passionate lover of nature, its defender and bard”—to quote one of Soloukhin’s publishers—exhorts his countrymen to cooperate with, rather than subdue, nature.


That the Soviets are bent on introducing the idea of substituting for the burning of coal, oil, and natural gas—three forms of preserved solar energy originally captured by plants—new, more direct, and pollution-free ways to tap the sun was revealed by an article in the first 1973 issue of Khimiya i Zhizn (Chemistry and Life). The article pointed to the research of the American Nobel Prize winner Melvin Calvin in photosynthesis, wherein he discovered that plant chlorophyll under the influence of the sun’s rays can give up electrons to a semiconductor such as zinc oxide. Melvin and his co-workers created a “green photoelement,” which produced a current of approximately 0.1 microamperes per square centimeter. After several minutes, said the Soviet magazine, the plant chlorophyll becomes desensitized or “exhausted,” but its life could be extended by the addition of hydroquinone to the salt solution which acts as an electrolyte. The chlorophyll seems to act as a kind of electron pump passing electrons from the hydroquinone to the semiconductor.


Calvin has calculated that a chlorophyll photoelement with an area of ten square meters could yield a kilowatt of power. He has theorized that in the next quarter century such photoelements could be manufactured on an industrial scale and would be a hundred times cheaper than silicone solar batteries now being experimented with.


Even if the direct conversion of sunlight into energy via plant chlorophyll is not realized by the year 2000, says Chemistry and Life, it wouldn’t put too much of a burden on man to wait a few decades longer when he considers the millions of years it took to convert plants into coal.


As Soviet readers were being offered the notion that plants could one day directly produce energy for man’s needs from the sun, Professor Gunar, together with an increasing number of young Soviet scientists, was continuing to probe the awareness of plants to determine, for instance, how their reactions may serve as an index of frost, cold, and heat resistance in varieties of barley and cucumbers and of disease potentials in potatoes.


A clue to where Professor Gunar got the original inspiration to launch his series of detailed and ongoing studies on plants, which were to have such repercussions throughout the Soviet republics, is to be found in an article published in 1958 by A. M. Sinyukhin.


This colleague of Gunar’s refers to an outstanding Indian physiologist and biophysicist whose work was buried during his lifetime by Western science and hardly ever cited since his death. As early as 1920 Kliment Arkadievich Timiryazev, in whose honor the Moscow Agricultural Academy is named, heralded this work as introducing a new epoch in the development of world science. This unheralded genius, wrote Timiryazev, developed an apparatus, startling in its simplicity and sensitivity, to counter the entrenched idea of the German botanists that communication in plant tissue was simply hydrostatic. In so doing, he was able to measure in hundredths of a second the time needed for a signal to travel along the stems of various plants. Sinyukhin made clear that the USSR’s plant men were so impressed by the achievements of this Indian scientist that they were going to mount a research campaign based directly upon his long-ignored conclusions. In December, 1958, a pontifical meeting was held in the main conference hall of the USSR Academy of Sciences in celebration of the hundredth anniversary of the Indian sage’s birth. Three leading academicians summed up for the huge crowd assembled the fantastic breakthroughs which the Indian had made not only in plant physiology but in physics and in the vital and up to then unheard-of links between these distinct disciplines.

  • “Many years, during the course of which whirlwind developments have taken place in biophysics,” said A. V. Lebedinskii, one of the leading Russian pioneers in radiobiology and space medicine, “separate us from the time this Indian’s work appeared. But, reading his works today, one still senses in them an unexpected and fruitful source of a whole chain of ideas in contemporary science.”

In this great work, said another speaker, “The green world of plants, seeming to us so immobile and insensitive, came miraculously to life and appeared no less, and often even more, sensitive than animals and man.


Six years later the Soviet Union honored this neglected scientist by publishing in two handsomely illustrated volumes his selected works, together with copious commentaries including one entire book which had first made its appearance over half a century before, in 1902: Response in the Living and Non-Living. In these works Sir Jagadis Chandra Bose managed to accomplish the essential requirement of the twentieth century: an amalgamation of the wisdom of the ancient East with the precise scientific techniques and language of the modern West.