June 22 – Wassa Mater?

Today’s Factismal: The tomato is both a fruit and a vegetable.

The problem with science is that it often uses words in ways that are different than the common use. For example, when a scientist says that something is a hypothesis he means that it is a reasoned guess, and when he says that something is a theory he means that it is an extremely well-supported explanation for a particular phenomenon. But when a lay person uses those terms, he will frequently think that a hypothesis is more valid than a theory (perhaps because it has more syllables). Similarly, bias to a scientist means that there is some factor in the data that needs to be removed before the other effects can be seen but to a lay person it means that the whole thing is no good.

Even simple words like vegetable and fruit can cause trouble. To a botanist, a vegetable is any plant, be it okra or oak tree. But to a lay person, a vegetable is something that you eat with your main dish or as a salad. Similarly, to a botanist a fruit is the part of a vegetable that holds the seeds but to a lay person it is that stuff you eat for dessert. Though most of the time, this doesn’t cause much of a problem, it can matter when money is on the line.

And money was on the line in 1893. Under US law at the time, the taxes on imported vegetables were higher than those on imported fruit. Because nobody likes paying more taxes than they have to, a company headed by John Nix, John W. Nix, George W. Nix, and Frank W. Nix tried to claim that the tomatoes they were importing were fruit because,botanically speaking they were. The tax collector, a Edward Hedden, said that the Nixes were being smarty-pants and that’s not what the law meant. Their dispute went all the way to the US Supreme Court where the justices peered into dictionaries and asked a couple of greengrocers what the terms meant. When the greengrocers and the dictionaries all said that the tomato was a “vegetable”, the Court ruled in favor of the tax collector; tomatoes were vegetables in the eyes (and stomachs) of the law.

If you’d like to work with these vegetables that just happen to be fruits as well, then head over to Tomatosphere where they are experimenting to see how astronauts can raise fruity vegetables and vegetable fruits for space travel.

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