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Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Whale Song

Did you catch the story? "Whales off set carbon emissions". Stick with this...they do it through their poo.

This is how it works. Sperm whales eat squid which they catch at considerable depth. The squid are rich in iron which the whales release when they have a poo in the upper layers of the oceans. You can understand this they wouldn't shit on their dinner table. The poo releases iron into the seas which increases the population of phytoplankton and they in turn absorb the carbon.

Isn't that amazing! So "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home" was not a load of tosh - it was the way to save the world.

From one of the largest creatures on the planet to a fairly small one. The robin.

Yesterday I had the pleasure of sharing my cabbage patch with one such redbreast. I was clearing the broad beans after a highly successful crop - well compared to last year when the black fly managed to knacker most of the plants before the pods could develop. This year, actually last autumn, I hatched a cunning plan planting winter sowed beans. The little blighters grew slowly through the snow and frost of last winter and by the time the blackfly had woken up in the Spring they'd developed such tough skins that the pests found sucking on them was like sucking a stone. The result was loads of juicy pods full of lush, plump, succulent beans.

Turning over the soil gave the little creature ample titbits. As I dug and turned up all sorts of bugs and creepy crawlies he accompanied me filling his beak with tasty morsels. I think he was feeding a second brood because having stuffed his mouth full with wriggly worms etc he flew off, each time heading in the same direction.

The robin's small size, contrasted with that of the sperm whale put me in mind of Lord Rees' Reith lectures currently being broadcast on Radio 4 over the past few weeks. (A real treat along with the return of "A History of the World in One Hundred Objects"  ). In the third of four talks Lord Rees stressed there are things that will always lie beyond our sphere of comprehension and we should accept these limits to our knowledge. On the other hand, there are things we've never even dreamt of that will one day be ours to explore and understand.

He made the point that what is "miraculous" (my word not his) is that the Universe is comprehensible. Our brains which developed adapting to the conditions on the African savannah can comprehend the infinitely small and the infinitely large despite having no "first hand" experience of either. That is quite staggering.

For example, in exploring the infinity small  - the stuff that makes up everything - we have theorised about what is the foundation of all the particles our high energy physics experiments have discovered. String theory postulates that all these different particles and the accompanying forces are facets of  seven dimensional strings. These strings are so small that we cannot see four of the seven dimensions - we are tuned into a three dimensional space.

At the other extreme; we have built instruments which enable us to see events of a size and at a distance in space and time which are awe inspiring. We can comprehend a universe composed of billions of galaxies which in turn are composed of billions of stars.

On the large  and nano scale we understand much about how our universe works. Yet the complexity of life is such that we still flounder trying to understand how it began. Or to explain the complexity of the very thing - our brain -which allows us to encompass our universe.

Let Hamlet almost  have  the last word: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."


Yet our intellect,our imagination and our yearning bring new understanding, new horizons and wonders all this is contained in an object weighing around 3lb.

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