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Science Talk

Quest for the Giant Pumpkin

In this episode, journalist Susan Warren, author of the new book Backyard Giants, talks about the art and science involved in the Quixotic quest to grow the world's biggest pumpkins. Plus we'll test your knowledge of some recent science in the news. Websites mentioned on this podcast include: bigpumpkins.com; 60secondscience.com

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Steve: Welcome to Science Talk the weekly podcast of Scientific American for the seven days starting October 31st. I am Steve Mirsky. This week on the podcast: "Yeah! Three things that [we] are never to discuss with people: religion, politics and the Great Pumpkin."Well, I never learnt Linus's life lessons, and since it is Halloween we are going to talk about great pumpkins. Plus, we'll test your knowledge about some recent science in the news. Susan Warren is the author of the book, Backyard Giants, which is subtitled "The Passionate, Heartbreaking and Glorious Quest to Grow the Biggest Pumpkin Ever." Susan Warren is a native Texan so she is used to things being outsized. She is the deputy bureau chief for the Dallas office of the Wall Street Journal. Backyard Giants is her first book. I called her at her home in Arlington Texas.

Steve: Hi Susan. How are you?

Susan: Hi Steve. I'm pleased to be here.

Steve: So, you are a respectable journalist with the Wall Street Journal. How did you wind up writing a book about the quest for the giant pumpkin?

Susan: Well, I could ask that a lot actually. And it all started with a story in the Wall Street Journal; I'm a gardener myself and I ran across something interesting in my own garden. When I went to research it on the Internet I ran across these guys who were obsessed with creating these monster fruits. And I wrote a story about the links [lengths] they went to get these pumpkins to the way [weigh] of scale each year and that ran on the front page and the book came out of that.

Steve: Now, in the authors note in the book it says that you actually grew your own giant pumpkins of 240 pounds.

Susan: I did, yes.

Steve: Did you go native after working on the book or was this something that you were interested in before the book?

Susan: Well, I'm a gardener but I did grow the pumpkin as research. That's what I told myself to start with. But in the end I did get sucked in and, even more amazing is my husband got sucked in. He is an architect and he doesn't even like to grow the grass. But I got him involved in helping me grow this pumpkin and he became just as addicted to it as any of the growers. So it was a very good lesson and [on] how you can easily become obsessed with this fruit.

Steve: You know, I[I've] got to tell you, as I was reading the book I was thinking, "I think I might have enough room in my backyard to try one of these things." It's a very dangerous book.

Susan: (laughs) It is. Because that's it. It sucks people in who like a challenge. And if you're the kind of person who is always trying to do a little bit better at whatever it is you do, then this is the kind of hobby that will be dangerous for you.

Steve: You know, I was going to ask you about the personalities of the people involved later, but since you brought it up, why don't we get into that now. Who are these people? I know there is the Wallace family and there is [are] some other personalities in the book, but talk about the psychology of more than you already have about what makes them want to do this.

Susan: Sure. You know, it was amazing to see the diversity of people who have tried to do this as a hobby. There are airline pilots, there are engineers, Wall Street analysts, bankers, truck drivers, country club managers and, you know, your mom could be a giant pumpkin grower. What they seem to have in common is a kind of a type—a personality where they are overachievers. They are the kind of people, who work a[at] 110 percent all day long, and then they come home and sitting in front of the television isn't enough for these guys and gals. They want to keep working. They go out into the garden and they put in another few hours. That kind of person who is constantly trying to do better and sees every challenge as something that they have got to try to defeat; that's a (unclear 4:11) thing.

Steve: But one of the great things is, despite the type A personalities there is a real kind of collegial atmosphere where everybody is working together in other ways as well.

Susan: It wasn't always that way. This hobby started out—it's a competition and there was a lot of secrecy involved in the early days of the competitions where growers, if they found something that works for them they held those secrets very closely. There was very little sharing. And the age of the Internet changed that. Slowly these growers realized they weren't going to be able to hold on to their secrets. Pumpkins kept getting bigger and bigger. We've had 15 new world records in the last 18 years and these guys just realized that it was better to share. And now they have a philosophy of it: "I'm going to beat you. I want to beat you at your best. So here, let me help you."

Steve: That's pretty interesting.

Susan: Yes.

Steve: Let's talk about the actual gigantic fruits. First of all, you point out in the book that no other fruit or vegetable gets to be as big as a pumpkin. What is so special about pumpkins?

Susan: You know, that was already true before they really started becoming giants. Pumpkins are part of everyone's history. Everyone has usually very warm family oriented kind of memories of pumpkins. They are associated with our holidays. They are associated with our fairy tales from our youth—the Cinderella's carriage and the nursery rhymes like, Peter, Peter Pumpkin Eater, which is actually a rather dark nursery rhyme but it's been embedded in our culture. These giant orange fruit are just something that we are all familiar with. And these growers have taken this very large fruit and they have gone (unclear 6:03) with it. They have pumped it up to supernatural sizes.

Steve: Super—natural, indeed. I mean you have in 1980 your world record is less than 500 pounds and today the world record stands at…

Susan: …1,689 pounds!

Steve: And that was set just a few weeks ago?

Susan: It was in Rhode Island. It was actually another one of the growers in the book—Joe Jutras, in Rhode Island.

Steve: And if you go to the Web site, bigpumpkins.com, you can see a photograph of some of the other pumpkin growers hoisting Joe Jutras on their shoulders for a winning.

Susan: Oh! yes. It was a moment of elation. When these guys win, it is the combination not only of their dream but of so many years of hard work. So many years of disappointment. So many years of learning and education to learn what it takes to grow these things.

Steve: So, one of the things that's been going on in the ever increasing world record size or weight of these mammoth fruits is they have been practicing [a] classic kind of artificial selection. They have been breeding for size right?

Susan: That's exactly right. They are not pure pumpkins anymore. Not the giants. The giants are the product of a lot of crossbreeding with other heavy cousins like squash. The goal is heavy, not necessarily just big. For competition it's too difficult to really compare size to size—it's not a very definitive kind of metric. So they were [went] to weight and in fact you can have one pumpkin that's smaller than another and yet weighs more if it's denser. And that's why they went to the crossbreeding. They began crossbreeding with squash, which has denser flesh, weighs more. That started bringing in some very strange genetics into pumpkins. And soon they didn't look pretty much like pumpkins at all.

Steve: Yeah! What do you call them? In the book you say that they resemble "deflated Thanksgiving Day parade floats."

Susan: They do. That's partly due to just their big size. They grow so large and there is [are] still somewhat malleable as they grow, and so gravity literally pulls on these things and they sag in the garden and then they fold over on themselves. They become just giant, knurly lumps and often [are in] different colors with a cantaloupe kind of kneading across the surface. They are tremendously ugly.

Steve: But the object again is just to make them weigh as much as possible.

Susan: The growers who are really competitive could care the less what they look like. They just want them to get as heavy as they can, so that when they take them to the scale—they will win!

Steve: These things while they're growing might be putting on usually between 20 and 30 pounds a day and there was even one reference in the book to one pumpkin that they estimated gains 60 pounds in one day.

Susan: This isn't through the whole season. This is at their peak growth period; they begin to rave up. And this is what separates the world champions from just the runner-ups. When they can get a pumpkin to put on that kind of weight for several days in a row—50 to 60 pounds—that's a world champion pace. It's also a tremendous strain on that pumpkin. This is when you start getting in to the heartache of the competition, because they are pushing these pumpkins but they don't want to push them to their breaking point; they don't know if they have control and some of these pumpkins will split wide open—they go on a growth spur[t] and they crack open and they literally outgrow their own skin. They grow so fast. Some of these growers say that when they walk out into their garden[s] at night, which they often do, they can literally feel the pumpkins growing in the patch, kind of creaking and groaning.

Steve: That's amazing. And most of the weight that they are putting on, if they're putting [it] on, you know, 10s of pounds of weight on a daily basis. It's got to be water weight—Right?

Susan: Well, a lot of water goes into these things. But the flesh is pretty dense, too. It's almost a woody kind of flesh in the denser, heavier pumpkins and, of course, they have a hollow cavity which is classic for a pumpkin. Any jack-o'-lantern carver knows about that. So you want to rein the show as thick as you can get it. So you have a smaller cavity and the pumpkin will be just a concrete when you slap it.

Steve: Yeah! The "funkability" test.

Susan: That's exactly right. Some growers claim to know how heavy their pumpkin is going to go by how it's thumped.

Steve: They actually put their ear against it and slap it with an open palm and listen to what it sounds like.

Susan: They do it. It's like a bear hug. They just throw themselves across this pumpkin and then they really slam it with their palm because these are big guys. And I guess it's not like thumping your watermelon in a grocery store. They are really pounding on it to get those vibrations going and I tried it—I bruised my hand.

Steve: Just to give people an idea of how gigantic they are. There are boat races that [where] they use some of the pumpkins after the weighing competition; they'll slice a pumpkin open and turn it into a boat that an entire adult human being can get into.

Susan: Oh! Easily. Yes, that is maybe a little-known fact about pumpkins: they float. And when you open them up they create a bowl someone can crawl inside, and they paddle with them. The problem with growing these giants is they are spectacles. You are not going to make a pumpkin pie. A lot of people joke about that. But I guarantee you; you don't want to put these things in your body. There's a lot of chemicals going into them and—surprise—they don't glow in the dark.

Steve: You know, you were talking about the chemicals. On last week's episode of the Scientific American podcast we talked about the microbial ecosystem that lives on and in the human body, and how you need the good germs as well as you have the bad germs. The good germs often outcompete the bad germs and in the book you talk about the realization among the pumpkin growers that they needed a microbial diversity in their pumpkin patches [and] that they were actually overdoing it with the fumigants and the pesticides and the insecticides, and that they were damaging the richness of the soil. They pay incredibly close attention to their soil and have it sent out for testing and make sure they know what the composition is. Why don't you talk about that a little bit?

Susan: Yeah! Absolutely. This is may be the most critical part of the growing season—before the seed ever goes into the ground they have to prepare their soil. These guys researched this, they talked to soil scientists all around the country. They send this soil off to be tested, they want to get that perfect nutrient balance. So they are constantly supplementing these soils. These guys are connoisseurs of manure and they can tell you the different properties of everything from chicken manure to pig manure to the good old fashioned cow manure. They are constantly supplementing their soil with more organics, testing it, making sure its good; getting the right minerals in there. And then during the season they are trying to maintain that perfect soil balance, which is hard because these pumpkins are really hungry beasts. They suck up everything from the soil very quickly. So you do have to add more nutrients into the soil as they grow. The growers in the past made the mistake of using too many chemicals—chemical fertilizers—and it decimated their soils along with the pesticides and fungicides. They killed all the good actors as well as the bad actors. And then what happens is that you find the bad actors coming in much more strongly and flourish[ing] in that hostile environment. They fully learnt to use organic fertilizers. They still haven't quite figured out how to get rid of all the pest[s] without the chemicals.

Steve: Yeah! There is some wonderful stuff in the book about them coming out in the middle of the night to chase the gophers away as well as some other varmints…

Susan: …They are homicidal when it comes to getting these varmints away from their plants because it is with one little munch these guys can kill the plant or kill the chances of the plant by nipping off that growth bud, and after that it is just very unlikely that you are going to get a world record off that plant. You'll still get a pumpkin, but they are going for the world record. They don't just want a pumpkin.

Steve: You know, you turn a very nice phrase as the listeners can just hear when you refer to the connoisseurs of manure. Let me just read a short paragraph from the book that I thought was particularly lyrical, and this is early in the book when one of the Wallaces looses one of his pumpkins and you wrote: "Ron's disappointment was sharp and deep and all too familiar. He cracked the rotting skin open in hopes of recovering some seeds. But the seeds swimming in a fetid pool of neon-orange slime were limp and lifeless. Disgusted, he left the broken shards of giant pumpkin lying in the grass next to the garden, an organic monument to disappointment."

Susan: These growers do inspire a certain kind of poetry. I believed that in the garden you can cover all the realms of human experience. Everything is there. Writing this book about pumpkin growers, it seems like a trivial subject but frankly their obsession with pumpkins isn't going to be any different from someone who obsesses over golf. And, in fact, they put in a lot more hard work than the average golfer.

Steve: And so there is this informal network all across the country and across the world really, where all these guys are now in touch via e-mail and Federal Express in sharing seeds and sharing knowledge, and, you know, all in the service of trying to create the one ton pumpkin.

Susan: It's absolutely a world obsession. You have growers in Japan, in Australia, in Latin America, all across Europe. Canada is very big with these pumpkins. That's what science and technology is making a big difference in this hobby, because if a grower in Phoenix, Arizona, wanted to try to get a giant pumpkin, he is going to have a look once the temperature hit a 100 degrees, which happens in March in Phoenix. So they have learnt to cope through technology and they actually start growing their plants in Phoenix, Arizona. I know a grower who starts his plant in January and he uses heating cables to heat up the soil, and then when the mercury begins to rise outdoors, then he switches to misting systems on automatic timers and he gets a giant pumpkin out of his garden that way.

Steve: Amazing. Now you have another story about pumpkins in the October 31st Wall Street Journal. Why don't you talk about that just a little?

Susan: Well, it answers that question of what to do with these things after they have been grown and come back from the way off, and one of the answers is these pumpkins have become very popular as a kind of crowd-pleasing spectacle—and in shopping malls and zoos and casinos are actually hiring professional carvers who don't just carve little triangles in these guys, they sculpt them and they do elaborate sculpture. These pumpkins are so thick—10 inches or a foot thick in places—you can carve them like a tree trunk and it becomes a sort of performance art, and I wrote about that for that [the] Journal.

Steve: And I assume there will be some good photographs accompanying that.

Susan: Online we'll have a slide show, and there's a video—so you can actually see a carver in action.

Steve: Susan Warren thanks so much for you time. It was fun.

Susan: Thanks.

Steve: For more info on giant pumpkins and the art and science of growing them, just go to www.bigpumpkins.com

Now it is time to play TOTALL……. Y BOGUS. Here are four science stories, only three are true. See if you know which story is TOTALL……. Y BOGUS.

Story number 1: Alaska's only elephant is being relocated this week to sunny California.

Story number 2: As Mars gets closer to the earth in its elliptical orbit in December, it will look about as big as the moon in the night sky.

Story number 3: The world's hottest pepper has been discovered.

And story number 4: A chemist has retracted parts of a paper he published in American Scientist in 1955.

Well, [While] you think about that. Let me tell you about a new Scientific American Web site you may already listen to—the daily Scientific American podcasts 60-Second Science. We now have a new Web site completely devoted to brief items from the world of science. It's called 60-SecondScience.com. So check out www. 60secondscience.com for a continuous stream of short, snappy science segments.

Speaking of which, story number 1 is true. Maggie the elephant at the zoo in Anchorage, Alaska, is getting a U.S. Air Force escort to California this week; should [she'll] be moving into an elephant sanctuary set up by the performing animals welfare society. The Air Force says it will be good training for the crew to transport something unusual. Before boarding the plane, Maggie is expected to be asked, "Did you pack your own trunk?"

Story number 4 is true. Chemist Homer Jacobson discovered that a couple of assertions he made about [the] origins of life in the 1955 paper were being used to support antievolutionary ideas on a couple of creationist Web sites. He reexamined his half-century-old arguments [and] decided they were simplistic and incorrect and asked that the passages be retracted. Of their use by the Web sites, Jacobson said, "It was hideous." To get the whole story, check out the October 26th edition of "Newsbytes of the Week" on the SciAm Web site.

And story number 3 is true. Data supporting the claim of the discovery of the world's hottest pepper was just published by the American Society for Horticultural Science's online journal HortScience. The pepper is called the bhut jolokia and hails from Assam, India. It measured a cool million units on the Scoville scale, the official pepper hotness measuring system. The next highest known hot pepper is the red savina, measuring only 577,000. The bhut jolokia is also known as the ghost pepper, presumably because it either kills you or you wish it had.

All of which means that story number 2 about Mars looking as big as the moon in the night sky next month is of course TOTALL……. Y BOGUS. But there is e-mail going around the world claiming that Mars will indeed get that big. It won't. For more on the Mars misinformation, check out the October 31st edition of the daily Scientific American podcast 60-Second Science.

Well that's it for this edition of the weekly Scientific American podcast. Check out numerous features at our Web site, including "Weird Science," recreations featuring sudoku, and the latest science news all at www.sciam.com; and you can write to us at podcast@SciAm.com For Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American, I'm Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.

Web sites mentioned on this podcast include: bigpumpkins.com; 60SecondScience.com

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