How Does Your Garden Grow?

Part of the Saskatchewan Science Centre’s mandate is to demonstrate that it is possible to excel in the world of science “even” in Saskatchewan. The quotation marks are intentional: it’s the attitude embodied in the use of that word we would like to dispel.

The fact is, top-notch, world-class science and Saskatchewan are not mutually exclusive terms. Recent announcements involving work on the anti-clotting drug heparin, or the first-ever filming of human ovulation, both by University of Saskatchewan scientists, are examples. Technologically, SaskTel is a world leader in fibre optics technology, while SED Systems in Saskatoon is playing an important role in developing systems for the Canadian space program.

And just across the lake from the Science Centre, at the University of Regina, Dr. Przemyslaw Prusinkiewicz of the Computer Science Department is doing world-renowned work in the field of computer graphics–work that the Science Centre will soon be making accessible to its visitors through an exciting exhibit called “How Does Your Garden Grow?”

“How Does Your Garden Grow?”, created by Dr. Prusinkiewicz and graduate students Lynn Mercer and Jim Hanan and funded by a grant from Science Culture Canada and a donation from the Bank of Montreal, explores plant structure and form, allowing visitors to manipulate the parameters that govern plant development and immediately see the effects on the plant’s overall form.

Upon first approaching the exhibit, the visitor is presented with six plants (different flowers, a fern, and even a tree) displayed in a “garden.” The user may choose any plant from the garden and manipulate it in three dimensions, getting a view from any direction.

Six experiments associated with the plant allow the user to manipulate the essential components of the plant’s structure. After experimenting, the user can add the modified plant to his or her own custom-made garden, and compare it with the original plant.

The experiments vary from plant to plant, with the parameters chosen to reflect those that have the greatest effect on the plant’s visible structure. Some of these will be purely structural–for instance, in one model, a common wildflower, the parameters are age, branching angle, stalk length, asymmetry, leaf size and colour–while others will be environmental–amount of sun, wind, etc.

What makes “How Does Your Garden Grow?” special is the science behind it, the ground-breaking research into the computer modelling of plants spearheaded by Dr. Prusinkiewicz and also involving several biologists and graduate students. This research has its basis in the relationship between a plant’s developmental processes and its overall form, which has always attracted biologists and laymen interested in the study of nature.

However, there was no method of describing plant structure until 1968, when the biologist Aristid Lindenmayer developed a way to do it mathematically, later known as Lindenmayer systems, or L-systems. L-systems provide a concise written description of plant structure and development, including such phenomena as branch formation, the flow of hormones that control flowering, and growth over time.

In 1986, Dr. Prusinkiewicz began working with Professor Lindenmayer to simulate these models using a computer. This joint research has since attracted the attention of computer scientists and biologists from around the world.

These computer-simulated plants will help shed light on the principles of plant growth–why plants take the shapes they do–and it is this basic-research aspect of the work, this attempt to better understand the structure of the world around us, that Dr. Prusinkiewicz considers the most important. It is this kind of basic understanding that is the foundation of all science.

Of course, this research will also have an impact on the field of computer graphics, by providing a way to create more realistic images of plants; plants that, instead of merely being “drawn,” are actually “grown.”

Practical applications? One Dr. Prusinkiewicz mentions is aiding landscape designers. On a computer-generated image of the area they are landscaping, they could place plant models, then play with various parameters and have the computer “grow” the models, to see what their design will look like five, 10 or 15 years down the road.

While landscape designers will have to wait a few more years for their opportunity to make use of this Saskatchewan-based research, visitors to the Powerhouse of Discovery will only have to wait a few more weeks. “How Does Your Garden Grow?” will be one of the first exhibits in The Living Planet, the next major exhibit area we’ll be developing, where visitors will explore the interrelationship among Earth’s living organisms and between living things and the planet’s natural processes.

Having had the opportunity to play with “How Does Your Garden Grow?”, I can say with complete confidence that ‘s is going to be one of the most popular exhibits at the Powerhouse of Discovery. We expect line-ups waiting to use it–and that’s just the staff.

But that’s all right. While you’re standing in line, you can reflect on the fact that this exciting exhibit is unique to Saskatchewan, and is only possible because Dr. Prusinkiewicz, like many other scientists, is doing world-class research right here in Saskatchewan. And there’s no “even” about it.

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