SALT LAKE CITY — For most people, waking up with a random question doesn't amount to more than a sleepy Google search. But for Matthew LaPlante, a bout of midnight curiosity eventually turned into a book.
"It sounds silly, but I woke up one night, and I had this thought in my head. 'I wonder what the oldest living thing is.' … So I rolled over and opened my laptop," LaPlante, a Utah-based journalist and Utah State University associate professor, told the Deseret News in a recent interview.
Instead of a straightforward answer like he was expecting, LaPlante was stunned to find that no one knows for sure what the oldest living organism is. He was even more surprised that one of the best guesses is a giant, interconnected system of aspens in Fishlake National Forest in central Utah — practically his backyard. The network, called Pando, consists of around 47,000 trees that bear identical genetic markers. Experts estimate Pando is around 80,000 years old.
LaPlante went to visit the forest a few days later.
"I just got afflicted with this amazing sense of awe, and I wanted to know more about it," LaPlante said. "The great thing about being a journalist is when you're curious about something, and when you get excited about something, you can find somebody to pay you to research it and write about it."
LaPlante is the author of "Superlative: The Biology of Extremes" (BenBella Books, 304 pages), a book that the author hopes will open its readers' eyes to the scientific miracles in our lives.
Even after writing about Pando for Salt LakeCity Weekly, LaPlante wasn't sure if the project would go anywhere. But when the story won the American Association for the Advancement of Science Kavli Science Journalism Award for Small Newspaper Reporting in 2014, a colleague suggested that he use the piece as a chapter for a book.
"I hadn't thought about it that way before, but she was totally right. And so I just started looking for other things," LaPlante said.
Eventually, the book came together under a focus on superlative organisms: the biggest, smallest, oldest, fastest, deadliest and smartest life-forms in the world. "Superlative" spins tales of wonder from a hunt for whale poop to a tiny mite that happens to be the fastest organism in the world by relative size. (If this mite was the size of a human, it would run 1,300 miles per hour.)
LaPlante said he chose the topic in part because of the human fascination with the biggest and best. In the intro to "Superlative," he pays homage to "The Guinness Book of World Records," which he said he read many times over as a schoolboy.
As he researched and wrote the book, he spent a year of his life feeling "just … wowed," he said. "I don't think there's a fact I learned that didn't blow my mind."
When he talks about extraordinary animal facts, LaPlante gets a near-reverent tone in his voice. His wonder and excitement are palpable — and these are the feelings that he hopes people will share when they read "Superlative," despite the endless bad news we absorb every day.
"What happens when we're really super interconnected is that we can convince ourselves that the world is a … scary and terrible place … but there's enough good to balance out the rest," LaPlante said. "I don't think we do a good enough job of reminding people … how kind most people are, how amazing most things are."
While LaPlante thinks the best form of self-care is telling and reading stories that bring joy, he acknowledges that not everything can be so upbeat.
As a journalist who has covered the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as problems veterans face at home, LaPlante is no stranger to hard-hitting news. "We have to tell the hard stories, we absolutely have to," he said.
No news is happy 100 percent of the time. Writing or reading about the near-extinction of whales or the poaching of African elephants isn't exactly the feel-good news you want as a pick-me-up. But LaPlante is adamant that learning about the organisms we share a planet with — whether the stories are happy or sad — can allow us to make better decisions about environmental issues.
"What decisions would we have made differently if we hadn't assumed that whales were an unlimited resource?," he asked. "If we had known how complex elephant communication (is) 100 years ago, would we have allowed them to be nearly wiped off the face of the planet? I don't think we would (have)."
Additionally, he thinks that learning how similar we are to many of the animals in the world will make us more empathetic to the world we live in.
For example, did you know that elephants experience post-traumatic stress? What about how alligators are great parents? LaPlante loves these stories, because they show us how similar animals can be to humans — and, by extension, are a good reminder of humanity's own similarities.1 comment on this story
"The more we look at the things that seem very different from us and realize how similar they actually are to us, the more connected to living things we tend to feel," LaPlante said. "So when you look at someone and say, 'That person's a different color than me or they're a different religion than me' … it's really hard to see them as all that different. … We're all made up of the same tiny collection of elements. We are all made of the same basic nucleotides that make up our DNA."