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The Tinkered Mind
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May 23rd, 2021
The stage lights were obnoxiously bright, making Lucilius squint as he repositioned the microphone hitched to his ear. The interviewer, and the audience patiently awaited his answer. He preferred the serenity of his lab, and he was restless to get back to work. He closed his eyes for just a brief moment and recalled the cool air he enjoyed during his walks outside of the lab, among his giants, and he was curious to hear about the results of the latest experiments his colleagues were running.
“Yes, well, they are the original technology for this problem,” Lucilius said. “Our planet used to be tremendously hot, and this is arguably one of the biggest factors that contributed to it’s cooling, and I’d argue, along with some prestigious company, it’s also what has plunged the planet into ice ages, which would be a far more manageable problem.”
“You mean trees are a technology?”
“Yes, that’s exactly what I mean. We don’t need a big boxy machine to suck carbon out of the atmosphere, we already have a machine that takes care of itself, multiplies on it’s own, and sucks carbon out of the air. Trees. They just don’t do it fast enough, so my team is tweaking with tree DNA to give them a bit of a boost.”
The interviewer nodded, and Lucilius wondered if his point had even landed. The interviewer looked down at a pad of paper, and started asking “You and your team entered the prestigious CarbonX Prize. Your team did not win, nor was your idea even part of the finalists. Are you disappointed with the result and what do you think this says about the perception of your idea and if people think it’ll work?”
Lucilius resisted the urge to roll his eyes and sighed a little. “Disappointed for not winning a contest we entered? Yea, sure, wouldn’t anyone be? As for what it says, I think it goes back to my point that everyone thinks the solution requires something complex and overly manmade. There’s this fallacy that surrounds innovation. It’s like a fog of mystery and magic that people imagine, but when really, innovation is about combining pre-existing parts in new ways. So when it comes to climate change, and the carbon problem, the default thought of a solution is quite literally a black box. Some sort of magic machine that will fix the problem. I don’t think the solution my team is working towards won because it’s not flashy enough, it doesn’t have the optics of mind-bogglingly new technology the way a new Apple product has. At first glance, our solution just seems old and tired - too common place. But this is where I argue that the remix or the cover of a song is often far better than the original. Trees as they are currently exist are adapted to a much different environment, and my team and I believe that we can tweak the programming of a tree to be perfectly adapted to this high-carbon environment.”
The interviewer nodded with false interest and understanding. “And how exactly do you think this is possible?”
Lucilius tilted his head from side to side deciding on the depth of answer he should give. “Redwoods are the largest natural tree species that we have to work with, but they grow very slowly. Paulownia or Empress Trees are the fastest growing hardwoods, they ingest carbon at a rate which is an order of magnitude above most other common trees. But they only get so big. The initial premise is, what if it were possible to create a hybrid tree that gets as big as a redwood and grows as fast as an Empress Tree? Because the best place for a tree to store more carbon is up. Just as cities grew taller with skyscrapers in order to host larger denser populations, carbon rich trees can store multiples of carbon if only they were taller. After that our thoughts veer toward genetics that enable a tree to stand very arid conditions. As you know, desert is the fastest growing landscape on the planet, and that is a very big problem. We need to reverse the process of desertification, but that is a very slow process of succession. Different species slowly invade at the edges of a desert and these species get replaced by other species which they can host by changing the environment, and eventually you can get an old growth forest. But that process takes centuries and even millennia. Whereas the process of desertification can occur in mere years. So what we need is a tree that can skip as many of the successional stages as possible. So for that we are also looking at cacti genes.”
The interviewer’s brow was furrowed in more feigned understanding. “And have you made any progress with these giant trees? On an island laboratory I believe? Sounds rather secretive.”
“I understand you have something to show us?” The interviewer asked.
Lucilius nodded and looked back at the enormous screen which turned on and showed what appeared to be a still image.
“That is a patch of redwoods in California,” Lucilius said. The framing showed several dozen trees with their full height visible at a distance. “Two years ago, we planted one of our hybrid trees on the edge of this stand of redwood. And without anyone noticing, we now have a new world record.”
Slowly the camera panned to a side revealing a single tree that stood taller than all the rest. The audience gasped at the enormity of the tree. Lucilius took a laser pointer from his pocket and cast the red dot up on the screen and made it circle a pixel of orange at the base of the huge tree.
“That’s me,” Lucilius said.