100: Big Tree with Brian Selznick

Brian Selznick is an illustrator and author best known for his books The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Wonderstruck, and The Marvels and Kaleidoscope. Brian joins Nate on this episode of The Show About Science to talk about the science behind his latest book, Big Tree. The book follows two small sycamore seeds, Merwin and Louise, who are looking for a safe place to grow while trying to save the entire world. Brian’s research into fossil species, climate change, fungal hyphae and paleobotany form the backbone of this mesmerizing journey from the Cretaceous period to present day.

Learn more about Brian, Big Tree, and his other books: https://www.thebrianselznick.com/

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Nate: Hello everyone and welcome to another episode of The Show About Science. This is your host, Nate. So every fiction book has characters, but when science is a character itself, then even the smallest details can mean the biggest things. On today’s episode, we talk with Brian Selznick about the science inside his latest book, Big Tree.

All right. Hello Brian.

Brian Selznick: Hi Nate. How are you today?

Nate: I’m good. Would you like to introduce yourself?

Brian Selznick: Sure. My name is Brian Selznick and I am an author and illustrator and I have a new book that just came out called Big Tree. I have a new book called Big Tree.

Nate: All right. So tell us a little bit about Big Tree.

Give us the rundown.

Brian Selznick: All right. So Big Tree is about two little tiny sycamore seeds named Merwin and Louise who are looking for a safe place to grow while also trying to save the entire world. Because what you discover at the beginning of the story is it seems like it takes place today in a forest, but it actually takes place in a forest at the very end of the time of the dinosaurs, the Cretaceous era.

And of course you probably know that that era ended when a meteorite hit the earth and destroyed most life on the planet. And so it’s about these two little tiny seeds trying to figure out what they can do to help save the world.

Nate: And so you mentioned that it’s in the Cretaceous era. So what kind of research did you have to do in order to like make sure that everything was scientifically accurate?

Brian Selznick: Oh my gosh. I did so much research and it was so fun. First of all, I read a huge number of books. So I found like every book I could find, not just about the Cretaceous era, but also about plants and seeds and nature in general. But my main research began when I met someone whose job is being a paleobotanist.

And that means he studies ancient plants. And so he was the person who first told me about something called fossil species. And fossil species are species that are still alive today that have been alive since the time of the dinosaurs or earlier. So if you go out into nature and there’s some trees near you or some plants, or if you have a fern in your house, ferns have been around since before the time of the dinosaurs for hundreds and hundreds of millions of years.

And ginkgo trees have been around since before the time of the dinosaurs and sycamores. So if there’s a sycamore tree near your house, that’s actually a very, very ancient species of plant. And I got the idea to make my character sycamore seeds because this paleobotanist said that they’ve been around forever and I wanted there to be a connection between the Cretaceous period, which was a very long time ago, and today.

But there really are connections.

Nate: So one of the crucial factors in this book is time. Like the seeds are racing against time to be planted, to grow. And one of the things about sycamore seeds is that they have this fluff, which our two main characters kind of use as like appendages. And over time, their fluff keeps wearing out. So how did you learn about this part of the seeds and then use it as this big narrative device in your book?

Brian Selznick: Thanks, it’s a really interesting question. I also met with several people who are like park rangers and experts in forests and got to go on walks through forests with some of these folks who pointed out the way all of the trees interact with each other. And I read a great book called The Hidden Life of Trees, which is really about how trees are all connected in a forest.

And when I was studying the sycamore trees after the paleobotanist told me about the fact that they were fossil species, I began looking at the seeds themselves, right? Because they start off in like a ball, which I thought was a little bit like a nursery, right? Where like all the children are together.

And then what happens is at some point the ball breaks apart and the ball is made up of the seeds and then all the seeds scatter into the wind. And that fluff that you’re describing actually does help the seeds move through the air or sometimes it gets stuck onto the fur of animals, which helps it spread the seeds further and wider to find new places to grow.

And I realized that that fluff could be a really great way to have the seeds move, because when I was writing the story, I made a decision that all of the things that happen in the story were going to be based on science. So like trees cannot get up and walk around on their roots, right? So if there’s a tree, the tree has to stay stuck in the ground.

But seeds can actually move around and fly in different places. And so I thought that that fluff would be a great way to do it. And then I realized that over time and seeds can actually last a really long time before they grow. And Merwin and Louise, I think they end up spending like 100 or 200 years before they actually start growing.

And they even found seeds from pyramids in ancient Egypt that they were able to sprout today. And I realized that with the asteroid coming, that’s going to destroy all life on Earth and the little seeds trying to figure out what to do. I realized that as the fluff is kind of being used and like you said, they are like little arms and legs, even though it’s really just the fluff, slightly anthropomorphizing, right?

Like slightly making something that’s not human have an attribute that is human. And I realized that fluff would probably start falling away over time. And that would make us feel even more nervous for the little seeds, because, you know, like Merwin is saying in the story, what happens when we lose all our fluff?

We won’t be able to move anymore. And so I realized that would be an exciting part of the story.

Nate: And so sycamores and ferns both appear in your book. Are there any other sorts of fossil species that do?

Brian Selznick: Let me see. I didn’t put any. There’s a ginkgo tree outside my window. But if anyone lives near a ginkgo tree, they’re really wonderful. But they smell very, very badly.

Nate: That is true. We have a couple around here.

Brian Selznick: So I didn’t put any ginkgo trees in my book. And there’s a character, an insect in the story named Spot. And originally I was going to make Spot a butterfly. But I found out from a paleoentomologist, who is someone who studies ancient insects, that we don’t have any proof that there were actually butterflies during the Cretaceous period because they’re soft.

And most fossils are like bones and things that are hard. And so there’s very few fossils of insects like butterflies. But there are a couple of fossils of some insects called lacewings, which are a little bit like dragonflies because the wings actually look like lace. Right. And so I made Spot into a lacewing.

Nate: I see.

So throughout the book, most of the non-plant creatures aren’t using their given names. Like Spot isn’t using his like species name. The ambassadors are fungi, but they’re called the ambassadors. The giants are humans or dinosaurs. But I think that there’s one that we never really address what they are.

So in this shell under the water, we find these little organisms that are collecting data on everything that’s happening under the ocean. And they’re called the scientists. So what are the scientists?

Brian Selznick: So during my research, like I was saying, I found out so many interesting things about nature. And I don’t remember exactly where I first found out about these little tiny creatures.

But I eventually tracked down a scientist at the American Museum of Natural History who specializes in them. And I called her up or I wrote her an email and I said, would you please tell me a little bit about these little creatures? They are called foraminifera. And foraminifera are almost microscopic, like the biggest ones are like the size of a grain of sand.

So you actually can see some of them with your naked eye. And they are in the water, in almost all water. And they have been in the water pretty much since the beginning of time. So for millions and millions of years, these little microscopic tiny creatures, which are neither plants nor animals, live in the water.

And there’s ones that live at the top of the water and there’s ones that live at the bottom of the water. And, you know, again, like they don’t interfere with you when you’re swimming or anything, but they’re there. And they have shells. And when they die, the shells sometimes, like other bones, they will fossilize or shells.

So when scientists started discovering ancient fossils of the foraminifera, they were able to measure the carbon in the shells because when the shells fossilized, they would take in the carbon from the water that they were in. And then the water gets the carbon from the air. And the scientists were able to measure the amount of carbon in the shells of the foraminifera from hundreds of millions of years ago and then compare it to the carbon in the air today.

And that’s how we discovered what climate change is.

Nate: Oh, wow.

Brian Selznick: That’s why we know that the climate has changed and is changing. Isn’t that interesting?

Scientists were able to measure the amount of carbon in the shells of the foraminifera from hundreds of millions of years ago and then compare it to the carbon in the air today. And that’s how we discovered what climate change is.

– Brian Selznick

Nate: Yeah. That is a very big discovery from some tiny little organisms.

Brian Selznick: Exactly. And so throughout the story, what I wanted to do was take these facts and present them as characters that would be part of a story.

So I thought, well, what if they were actually like working scientists and their job was to collect all the information that they could from the water? And they would in my book, they sort of like inscribe it on their bodies on purpose, even though that’s not exactly what they do. You know, but they’re aware that every piece of information that they take in will be read by other scientists in the future.

And of course, that’s us. You know, that’s people today.

Nate: Oh, that is a very subtle detail to include. That definitely flew over my head on my first read through.

Brian Selznick: That’s OK, because especially the first read through, I want you to just enjoy the story and to meet all these interesting characters. But the fact that it made you curious and that you had a sense that there was a bigger story to the scientists is exactly what I was hoping would happen.

Frankly, like the only people who know about foraminifera are foraminifera experts. Right. And that’s a very small number. And so I love that it made you curious about who the scientists were, because that’s exactly what I wanted to have happen.

Nate: Yeah. So at the very end, the ambassadors, the fungi, have this interesting interconnected grid, the wood wide web, that allows them to alert different parts of the forest to different things. And like we kind of touched on in my fungi episode, they help the trees to grow and give them nutrients in exchange for the trees giving them nutrients.

And so in the end, this grid becomes very important and it’s kind of hinted on at the beginning somewhat. But so what kind of research did you do as to how trees grow and how did you stumble upon the fungi? I think I first heard about the wood wide web. I haven’t heard about the fungi.

Brian Selznick: I think I first heard about the wood wide web.

I haven’t heard your episode about fungi. I’m excited to listen to it now.

Nate: Well, everyone should go listen to that.

Brian Selznick: Yes. As soon as they finish listening to this one.

Nate: After this one. After this one. Definitely.

Brian Selznick: If you haven’t heard it, we’ll all go listen to the fungi episode. But just to give you a little overview, you know, this idea that there are these fungi beneath the ground in the forest that connects all the trees, that makes trees into a real community, right?

They all need each other and they need the fungi to survive. A tree isn’t an individual creature like human beings aren’t actually individual creatures. We’re part of a community and part of many communities. So I first learned about the wood wide web from a radio show called Radiolab, which is all about science, which you may know.

It’s really good. It is very good. They did a whole episode called From Tree to Shining Tree about Dr. Susan Simard, who’s the person who really discovered what these fungi do. And I thought that was so interesting. And I learned about it a long time before I made Big Tree. But when I started working on the book, I remembered this idea of the fungi and thought it would be fun to create these characters who I named the ambassadors because they bring information all over the place.

And then at the end of the book, it gets a little speculative, right? Because I try to not just connect a forest, but I try to connect the whole world, right? Because the whole world is actually connected in so many ways. And I wanted to try to see if there was a way to make that part of the story where one forest then becomes part of the community of the entire world.

Nate: And so overall, Big Tree is an environmentalist book. So what is the message that it’s trying to get across to you?

Brian Selznick: Oh, well, I mean, Big Tree is definitely about the environment because it is about nature from the point of view of nature, right? Like the main characters are plants. But I think one of the big messages that I learned from making the book, which was first shared with me by the paleobotanist who I met, is when people say the Earth is in danger and we have to save the Earth, that’s not actually accurate.

The Earth is going to be fine. Like the Earth has been covered in fire. It’s been covered in ice. Like giant, crazy things have happened to the Earth. And no matter what, the Earth survives. What might not survive is us. We might die off. And then like once we’re gone, like the Earth will be like, OK, you know, I’m just going to keep going and like other life will pop up at some point.

Next. Right. But really one of the most important reasons to think about the importance of taking care of our planet is because it’s what we have and we have to be able to live on it. But ultimately, the Earth itself will heal. It’s just we want to be around when it heals. So I think that was a really big discovery for me or a big revelation.

You know, but again, like the main thing to me is that you enjoy the story and you become curious about it. And I think that’s the most important thing. That you enjoy the story and you become curious about it. And because the way that things change is by education, right, and by knowledge. And I hope that this is a fun way, like with foraminifera, right, that there are things in this that we can all learn.

I learned so much while I was writing it. And then we can use that knowledge to hopefully to do good things.

Nate: Yeah. Thank you for being on the show.

Brian Selznick: Oh, it was so fun to talk to you. I really enjoyed it.

Nate: Oh, yeah. We had a blast.

Brian Selznick: We did.

Nate: There you have it, folks. The Show About Science is complete. Music on today’s episode was from Epidemic Sound and our theme music was composed by Jeff, Dan, and Theresa Brooks.

We have a new website. It’s theshowaboutscience.com. So make sure to check that out. All right, dad, you can shut the recording off.

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