Mushrooms and the musings of a Nobel laureate

One of the great things about being on vacation is the ability to follow research wherever it leads. Recently, that meant a lecture by a Nobel laureate and an article about the sex lives of mushrooms.

I never took much note of mushrooms before a lecturer spoke fondly of her membership in an edible mushroom foraging club, a fact I remember finding unusual enough to be memorable. I never pursued the subject, though it did prompt a visit to the Art Institute during the restaurant’s “White Truffle Week” one December.  Since then, they’ve become one of my favorite things to photograph.


Another December rolled around, and with it, an article about the exotic sex lives of mushrooms in my social media feed. Just like a standard rom-com, the article made the whole process of fungal sex sound really emotionally dramatic, even ending with a “their love life is way better than yours” punch. I probably would have overlooked the boast if the next article I’d found hadn’t been about the bacteria and fungus inside and on our bodies. Thinking about things getting frisky in my space while I’m engaged in less exciting work is kind of an annoying thought.

But back to science. A few days before Christmas a feisty, old chemist visited the university I attend to speak on chemistry, life and the work that a few decades ago earned him and two other scientists a Nobel prize. It was an interesting lecture, filled with lots of really insightful tidbits and socially-controversial things, which he delivered with an exasperated edge kind of like pit bull readying to charge.

One of the most memorable ideas was his repeated insistence on the self-ordering of the universe, that everything exists as a sort of residual build-up from smaller, simpler events.

It’s something I’ve also wondered about, albeit not as aggressively. I know I’ve thought of making “big” decisions, wrestled with desires and scenarios and dramatic plans for the future, but I can’t really think of a time that any of those things actually happened. Looking back so far it seems most consequences have come from a series of little desires and small, simple solutions to present problems, rather than grand, future plans.

Perhaps it’s all best described by the mushroom in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. A little bit causes Alice to grow into something (inconveniently or helpfully) big. Questions remain, but she changes just the same.