Skip to content

Posts from the ‘Science and Nature’ Category

Some more Wayne Levin (and Manta Rays!)

After I published my post about Wayne Levin’s new book, Akule, the other day I came across this rather terrific little video featuring Wayne talking about his experience photographing Manta Rays and his work more generally. Having dived with Mantas myself I’m keenly aware of the feelings of awe Wayne describes, and of the other-worldly presence of them in the water.

Anyway, if you’d like to see more of the shots discussed in the video they’re available on his website, otherwise enjoy!

A Murmuration of Fish: Wayne Levin’s Akule

Wayne Levin, ‘Circling Akule’, © Wayne Levin (click to embiggen)

Of the many editorial decisions I made while putting together The Penguin Book of the Ocean, the one I’m proudest of was to include a series of Wayne Levin’s photographs. Anybody who’s seen the book will know how much they add to it, not just because they offer a stunning visual counterpoint to the written selections, but because they so eloquently distill the sense of the ocean’s mystery and beauty I wanted the book to evoke as a whole. I think – I hope – that the book is put together in such a way that every piece adds something essential, but I think there’s little doubt that if there was one selection the removal of which would drastically impoverish the whole, it’s Wayne’s photographs.

I assume some readers will already be familiar with Wayne’s work. Although he’s less well-known in Australia than he is in the United States, his iconic images of swimmers and bodysurfers are both justly celebrated and immediately recognisable (and, I suspect, were at least partly responsible for inspiring Narelle Autio and Trent Parke’s equally iconic celebration of the Australian beach, The Seventh Wave).

For my part, I first encountered Wayne’s work in 2005. I was working on a book about the Pacific (a project which, sadly, I later shelved) and as part of my background research had been reading Thomas Farber’s brilliant essays about water and the ocean, On Water (one of which also appears in The Penguin Book of the Ocean). Keen to read more of Tom’s work I went searching online, and in so doing stumbled on Wayne’s breathtaking 1997 book, Through a Liquid Mirror, which features an introduction by Tom.

Wayne Levin, ‘Body Surfers’

When my copy arrived I sat staring at it for hours. I quickly realised I’d seen some of the images of surfers before, but as I read on I found the real marvels were not those strange, perspectiveless images of humans in flight underwater, but the images of marine creatures: sharks, dolphins, fish, turtles, gliding weightlessly through the deep.

In the weeks after that I bought and read Wayne’s similarly beautiful and deeply haunting collection of photographs of aquariums, Other Oceans, and found my way to his website, which collects many of the images from the books, both of which only added to my admiration for his work.

One of the things I found most striking about Wayne’s images was his decision to work not in colour but in black and white. There’s no doubt one of the great revelations of the last decade or so has been the rapid advances in the documentation of marine environments, in particular the work of the BBC’s Natural History unit, whose efforts have led to the creation of documentaries such as The Blue Planet and Planet Earth. While these works have done much to change the way we see the oceans and their inhabitants, perhaps one of the most profound is the way they’ve taught us to see the marine environment as a place filled with colour, not just the reds and oranges of coral and tropical fish, but the deep, saturated blues and greens of the water, and the dazzling silvers and metallic glints of fish and light.

By contrast, by working in black and white, Wayne’s photos cleave to a more denuded palette, one comprised only of silvery greys and blacks, a decision that serves not just to sever their connection to more documentary forms of photography, but to demand the viewer see the subjects again, not as fish or swimmers or sea spume, but as things in themselves, wrapped in their own mystery and moving outside the bounds of language. Breaking waves become thunder clouds, suggesting how close swimming is to flight, sharks become sculptural objects, whales and dolphins loom out of the dark towards the light.

Wayne Levin, ‘Blue Trevally surrounded by Akule’

At its most effective, in images such as  ‘Blue Trevally surrounded by Akule’, this transformation grants the subjects – and by extension the photographs themselves – a sacral quality, imbuing the scenes they depict with a mute power that conveys something essential about both the immensity and indifference of the ocean.

Yet in many ways the best of Wayne’s images are those focussing on schooling Bigeye Scad, or Akule, as they are known in Hawaii. In these images the schools of fish become not just schools but living things in their own right, drifting and swirling like patterns of smoke or the Aurora, many minds in one body.

Most of Wayne’s Akule photographs were taken across a three year period last decade, during which schools of Akule gathered in Kealakekua Bay on Hawaii’s Big Island (and the site of the fatal attack on Captain Cook), and Wayne took to swimming out in pursuit of them, oxygenating his lungs as he went in order to freedive ten, twelve, even eighteen metres down, to the edge of the light to capture the fish moving below.

The best of these images, together with a selection of other images such as ‘Body Surfers, Makapu’u O’ahu 1983’ are collected together in Wayne’s new book, Akule, which was published late last year.

Perhaps interestingly, it’s a smaller book than either Through a Liquid Mirror or Other Oceans, not just slimmer but more closely cropped. Yet somehow this reduction in size gives it an intimacy and simplicity many larger books lack.

But its size also belies the wonder of many of the images it contains. Here, again and again, schools of fish take on the wonder they possess in reality, becoming shifting things of light and silver, darting and turning, many minds in one body.

Wayne Levin, ‘Akule Tornado’

As Frank Stewart points out in his introduction to the book (the book also features a Foreword by Tom Farber), the seemingly purposeful of fish schools are relatively simple, and can, like many complex phenomena, be reproduced by the application of several simple rules, the same rules that create the unity of purpose exhibited by bird flocks (they also, suggestively, bear more than a passing resemblance to the Aboriginal artist, Gloria Petyarre’s Medicine Leaves paintings, which evoke the movement of grass and leaves in the wind).

Stewart is wary of reading too much into the capacity of simple rules to generate complex behaviour, cautioning against the desire of some to see in it something essential we have previously only associated with living things.

I share some of that wariness, though I’m perhaps less inclined than Stewart to dismiss the discoveries of those working in this area as simply the application of “our currently fashionable metaphor to explain the mystery of life”. Yet he’s right to point to the way many of the photographs in Akule ask us to reconsider our ideas about the boundaries of agency. It is impossible to look at photographs like ‘Column of Akule, Kealakekua Bay, Hawai’i 2000’ or ‘Flock of Akule, Keauhou Bay, Hawai’i 2006’ and not be aware of the way these twisting columns of bodies seem to have purpose and meaning of their own, or the manner in which their sense of order and movement seems to imply the presence of some kind of collective organism.

Wayne Levin, ‘Pattern of Akule’

This desire to expand the definition of life to include biological systems is central to much contemporary biological and environmental thinking. Yet it also demands we rethink our own relationship to the environment we inhabit, and the interconnected web of life that sustains it. Given the urgency of the environmental challenges we face, there is something both salutary and humbling in being confronted by work which, like Wayne’s photographs, demands we do precisely this. Because in the end that is what the photographs in Akule do. They ask us to look at the twisting, shifting, leaping columns of fish and see them as what they are: things pulsing with life, mysterious and Other, but living all the same. And, perhaps just as importantly, they demand we re-examine many of our assumptions about the creatures that surround us, by reminding us of how irrelevant we are to them, caught as they are in the business of their lives, and of how our knowledge of them will always be partial, fragmentary, constrained by the limitations of our imaginations and senses.

Akule, Through a Liquid Mirror and Other Oceans are all available from Amazon. If you’d like to see more of Wayne’s work you can visit his website or download a preview of Akule. The Penguin Book of the Ocean is available in Australian bookstores or you can check prices at Booko. At some point I may talk more about my unfinished book about the Pacific but that’s very definitely a story for another day.

The Rat-King is dead, long live the Rat-King!

If like me you’re a little bit phobic about rats you probably don’t want to read this story about the rat plague afflicting the Myer Building in Sydney, or the swarms of them that rise up out of the foundations every night to take over the Food Court. And you definitely don’t want to read this piece by Sean Wilsey about the rats of New York City. Or hear the story I heard years ago about the tide of rats that swept across the lane behind the old Rex Hotel and into the building opposite when demolition began (apparently it looked like the ground was moving). And you absolutely, positively don’t want to read my Rat-King post again.

Do you?

Waves, the ocean and the sublime

Today’s Australian contains the last Australian Literary Review for 2010. A chunk of the issue is given over to a long piece by Michael Costa suggesting some solutions to the problems facing the ALP and a forum of prominent academics such as Glyn Davis, Peter Doherty and Stephen Lincoln exploring the challenges and opportunities facing Australia and the world as we look forward to 2020.

But the issue also features a long piece by me about Susan Casey’s new book, The Wave: In Pursuit of the Ocean’s Greatest Furies. Some of you may know Casey as the author of The Devil’s Teeth, which explored the world of Great White Sharks and the researchers who study them, and while it’s largely shark-free, The Wave often reads like a sequel or counterpart to its predecessor, using the career of big wave surfer Laird Hamilton as the springboard for a much larger study of the science of waves and the gathering storm of climate change.

I won’t rehearse the arguments of the book here, except to say that it’s an intelligent, if sometimes slightly slick piece of work. I’ve subsequently learned there’s been something of a scandal about the fact Casey shared the proceeds from the book with Hamilton, a fact that lends her already over-eroticised and hagiographical descriptions of him a distinctly queasy edge. But as I say in the review, Casey writes brilliantly about the breaks themselves, and the larger picture the book paints of the effects of climate change on ocean turbulence and wave height is likely to be deeply disturbing to anybody who’s not familiar with the facts surrounding the changes taking place beneath the ocean’s surface (if this material is new to you you might want to take a moment to read this story from the ABC, and perhaps this piece by Elizabeth Kolbert as a primer).

Much of what I want to say is in the review itself, but there is one story in Casey’s book I desperately wanted to include but just couldn’t shoehorn in, and that concerns the wave that hit Alaska’s Lituya Bay in 1958. Situated midway between Vancouver and Anchorage, Lituya Bay is one of those rare places where the various factors that generate tsunamis converge, combining a narrow fjord and near vertical cliffs on three sides with a steeply rising bottom, large glaciers and seismic instability. First charted by La Perouse in 1786, it has a long history of sudden and violent wave activity.

But the wave that struck on 9 July 1958 dwarfs all other recorded waves. Triggered by an earthquake, the ocean sent a tsunami which reached 524m in height rolling through the bay and out to sea.

The notion of a wave more than half a kilometre high beggars belief. Yet it is not the most remarkable part of this story. That honour belongs to the fact that at the time of the tsunami several fishing boats were moored in the bay, and one of the captains, Howard Ulrich, survived by steering his boat up the face of the approaching wave.

You can read the review in full here.

Update: I thought these two videos, one of Laird Hamilton in action, the other of an unidentified surfer riding a very big wave might be of interest (thanks to Tim Dunlop for the reminder).



The Northern Lights

Some of you may have seen them already, but if not these images of the Aurora Borealis by photographer Tor Even Mathisen are truly magical.

Be sure to embiggen for the full effect (via io9).

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Slipping down into dark water

Last week’s Opinionator in The New York Times featured a fascinating piece by Robert Sapolsky suggesting that at least some of our metaphorical toolbox is biological in origin. I’ll let you read the article in full, but Sapolsky uses several recent studies, including the 2006 Zhong/Liljenquist study demonstrating moral disgust is assuaged by washing, to argue that in these cases the brain is engaged in a sort of neural confusion, and very primitive responses, such as that of physical disgust, are being triggered by social stimuli.

I’m always a little wary of this sort of argument, but in this case Sapolsky (who’s the author of one of the classics of animal writing, the wonderful A Primate’s Memoir) is on pretty solid ground, since there are imaging studies which demonstrate unpleasant moral and unpleasant non-moral stimuli activate the same regions of the brain. But the piece got me wondering about something I’ve been thinking about for a while, which is the question of why our thinking about sleep, dreams and the unconscious is so suffused with images of liquidity.

It’s a question I came up against while editing The Penguin Book of the Ocean, and (if you’ll pardon me quoting myself) it’s one I raise in the introduction:

“It is not accidental that when the historian Fernand Braudel sought to describe those cycles of history that exceed the human and stretch downwards, into the environmental, the geological, he reached for the marine metaphor of ‘deep time’, nor that Romain Rolland chose the term ‘oceanic’ feeling to describe the sensations of boundlessness and oneness with nature he believed were the birthplace of religious sentiment. Indeed, so pronounced is our tendency to reach for images of fluidity and submersion to describe our inner lives and the mysterious processes of creativity and creation that it is difficult not to wonder whether the association is somehow natural, less a habit of mind than something innate. But even if it is not, the association between water and dreams, time and the oceanic runs so deep it has become almost impossible to think of one without invoking the other.”

I’m aware, of course that there’s a sizeable body of psychoanalytic thinking touching on this subject, perhaps most notably that of Bachelard (I’d also note in passing the deeply evocative expression “body of water”). I’m also painfully aware of how difficult it is to distinguish the cultural from the “natural” in this context. But after reading Sapolsky I did find myself wondering whether these associations might be at least partly founded in a similar retooling of very primitive parts of the brain.

All of which is an extended way of asking whether anybody knows of any studies suggesting such associations. Or, perhaps just as pertinently, whether anybody has any sense of whether the association exists in other cultures. Do the Chinese, for instance, or Native American cultures make similar associations? Obviously the notion of the unconscious mind is a relatively recent and essentially Western notion but I’d be very interested to know whether other cultures imagine sleep and dreams in terms of drift and immersion, or think of imagination in terms of flow. And, assuming the association is at least partly neurological in nature, are there any studies or theories as to what it’s about?

A little bit of linkage

I tend to do most of my linking on Twitter these days (and I’m a heartbeat away from setting up a Tumblr page for things that seem too long for Twitter but not really worthy of full-scale blogposts) but I’d be remiss if I didn’t direct people to this amazing series of photographs of London in the early 1880s. All photography is, as Sontag and Barthes remind us, necessarily a record of loss, but in these images of London that sense of loss is (as the author recognises) given added power by the strange absence of people from the streets and buildings depicted, an absence which recasts the city itself as a sort of memento mori.

On a rather different note, you might want to check out Sci-Fi-O-Rama, a site dedicated to SF and Fantasy-themed art. There’s usually something good going, but recent features on French SF illustrations, British SF artist Jim Burns (whose work graced the covers of any number of the SF books I read as a teenager in the 1980s) and Australian artist Dan McPharlin are particularly worth checking out.

Elsewhere I can heartily recommend both the excerpt from n+1’s What was the Hipster? in the New York Magazine, a piece which has some very intelligent things to say about the hollowing out of the counter-culture. And if you’ve not seen it before, it’s worth revisiting n+1’s terrific 2005 editorial about the novel and its place in contemporary culture.

And finally, please read the summary of an extraordinary year in climate science that appeared this week on Climate Progress. A lot of what’s there will be familiar to anybody with an interest in the subject, but it’s a piece that should be required reading not just for anybody who doesn’t think climate change is the single biggest issue facing the human race, but for every politician and policy-maker around the world.

And if you haven’t seen it, perhaps you could cap off the Climate Progress piece with Elizabeth Kolbert’s trenchant analysis of the Republican Party’s war against climate science and climate scientists in this week’s New Yorker. As Kolbert remarked in her chilling 2006 study of climate change, Field Notes from a Catastrophe, “[i]t may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of doing.” (I’d also recommend Kolbert’s excellent piece on the links between declines in zooplankton populations triggered by rising levels of carbon dioxide in the oceans and large-scale change in the ocean’s chemistry, ‘The Darkening Sea’, a piece I came within a hair’s breadth of including in The Penguin Book of the Ocean).

Best Underwater Photography 2010

Alexander Safonov, 'Hitting sailfish'

I’m excited to say I’ve just received a copy of Wayne Levin’s new book, Akule, which I’m planning to write something about next week (Wayne’s photos appear in The Penguin Book of the Ocean and I’ve written about his work previously) but in the meantime you might like to take a look at this stunning collection of photographs chosen by the judges of Our World Under Water and Deep International Underwater Competition. The Safonov image above is probably my pick, but it’s only one of a pretty fabulous collection.

Is that a turkey in your pocket or are you just pleased to see me?

Brush Turkey phone home?

So, I’m driving through East Sydney at about 5:15 last night, on my way to pick my daughter up from childcare, when I look out the window and see a Brush Turkey trotting along the footpath. Not a bird that looked like a brush turkey, or some other random Megapode, but an honest-to-Betsy, full-grown, black and red Brush Turkey.

Now I have to confess that threw me a bit. Sydney’s blessed with an abundance of bird life, including a number of quite large birds (Black and Sulphur-Crested Cockatoos, Channel Billed Cuckoos, even the omnipresent Sacred Ibises) but a Brush Turkey? In the inner city? If nothing else Brush Turkeys are pretty much flightless, so it would have to cross the road on foot to get anywhere. And where on earth would it nest? (for those of you overseas, Brush Turkeys nest in huge (and I mean HUGE) mounds of leaves and sticks). Bizarre.

Pleasingly though, it reminded me of one of my favourite stories, which concerns the bird painter John Gould, and is to be found in Isabella Tree’s biography, The Bird Man. The story stems from Gould’s visit to Sydney in the late 1830s, a visit which saw Gould visit many of the local worthies, including one (who if memory serves was Alexander Macleay, one of the founders of the Australian Museum and the original owner of Elizabeth Bay House) who Gould was delighted to discover had a Brush Turkey nesting in his garden.

Gould spent some time observing the turkey and made some sketches of it, but the real treat comes later in a footnote by Tree, in which she notes (rather sardonically if I remember correctly) that despite its success on the day of Gould’s visit, the Brush Turkey later met with an unfortunate end, when it drowned attacking its own reflection in a bucket of water, a fate that suggests a degree of focus that’s not so much admirable as alarming.

Break text

How does this uncritical anti-science nonsense end up on the front page?

Am I the only one who’s completely horrified by the Australian media’s embrace of the ongoing publicity campaign by the Catholic Church over the canonisation of Mary MacKillop? Not content with wall-to-wall coverage of the announcement just before Christmas, we’re now being treated to nonsense like this and this (and this!) on the front pages of the newspapers.

Rather than fulminate at length, I’m going to confine myself to a few questions. How is it even remotely okay for major newspapers to be publishing uncritical articles about “miracles” on their front pages in 2010? Have we really lost the fight against the anti-science mob that comprehensively? If such claims were made by another, less established religion or belief-system (let’s say Scientology, or perhaps the Exclusive Brethren) would they be allowed to go through to the keeper so easily? And what does that tell us about the power and influence of the big churches, and the Catholic Church in particular? And finally, and perhaps most pertinently, why are editors who are so resistant to the scientific evidence surrounding climate change so uncritical when it comes to this sort of religious claptrap?

Break text


Is climate change denialism the new Hansonism?

Like everybody else in Australia I’ve spent the last couple of weeks mesmerised by the spectacle of the Liberal Party coming unravelled over the question of their position on the Rudd Government’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme and climate change more generally. Watching open warfare break out between what the media politely describe as the conservatives (I suspect reactionaries is probably closer to the truth, but perhaps a little inflammatory for the broadsheets to use on a daily basis) and the moderates I’m reminded of an interview I heard with The Sydney Morning Herald’s Political Editor, Peter Hartcher at the time of Turnbull’s elevation to the leadership, in which he was asked whether he thought Turnbull was ready to lead the Liberal Party. To his credit Hartcher just laughed. ‘I think the real question is whether the Liberal Party is ready for Malcolm Turnbull’.

Aside from the fact somebody’s usually done something totally insane by lunchtime (and yes, Tony Abbott, I’m looking at you) one of the really fascinating things about the whole schemozzle is the way it’s highlighted just how entrenched climate change denialism is in the ranks of the Liberal Party.

Now I’d be the last to claim the views of our elected representatives are particularly representative of the views of the community at large. On a range of issues, from religion to abortion and euthanasia, they are, for the most part, markedly more conservative than most Australians. And if the polling is to be believed, they’re similarly out of step on climate change, as polls such as this one in today’s Sydney Morning Herald showing two thirds of Australians support the ETS, demonstrate.

But on the question of climate change I suspect they’re providing a useful reminder that despite the increasing acceptance in the community at large that climate change is happening, and fast, there is a small and entrenched minority who reject the science.

What’s interesting to me is the distribution of these beliefs across the community. A few weeks ago Roy Morgan released some polling data about the question, which Crikey’s Possum has offered some useful commentary on. Several things stand out in the Morgan data. First, belief in climate change and the need for action divides pretty cleanly across party, gender and demographic lines. Labor and Green voters are much more concerned than Liberal voters, women are more concerned than men, and people in the capital cities are more concerned than those in regional and rural areas. Second, and more worryingly, these positions are hardening and polarising: there has been a small increase in the number of people who disapprove of the CPRS in the last few months, and these new initiates into the ranks of the climate change denialists are mostly Liberal-voting men from outside the capital cities (I appreciate disapproval of the CPRS and climate change denialism are not precisely the same thing, but I think we can assume the two are closely connected in this context).

These are, of course, precisely the same people who were the backbone of One Nation a decade ago. Older white men from outside the capital cities.

One of the things I remember most keenly about the rise of Pauline Hanson was the way it blindsided conventional public opinion. For middle-class elites it seemed to come out of nowhere, a furious, incoherent cry of unreason which deliberately rejected the foundations of their world view in favour of views which seemed to inhabit a netherworld somewhere between the laughable and the poisonous.

I suspect the rising tide of climate change denialism is catching middle-class elites off-guard in exactly the same way. That Andrew Bolt’s blog is a haven for denialist maddies is no secret, but I’d suggest anyone who thinks there’s broad-based support for action on climate change spend some time trawling the comment strings on The Daily Telegraph or The Punch, or maybe tune into 2GB for an hour or two.

Of course I’m well aware that an awful lot of what passes for commentary on news sites is the work of formal and semi-formal political operatives. But the sheer ferocity of the comments about Turnbull and Rudd, and the persistent suggestion that the science of climate change is a lunatic conspiracy, and the CPRS some kind of plot to destroy (white) Australia is pretty striking. More broadly, climate change denialism exhibits many of the same characteristics that made Hansonism so potent: the rejection of evidence-based policy, suspicion of expert opinion, dislike of what was seen as the preaching of the self-appointed guardians of public morality. And, judging by the polls on different news sites, it’s catching elite opinion off-guard in exactly the same way Hansonism did: earlier today I compared two polls about the Liberal leadership: The Sydney Morning Herald was registering close to 70% support for Malcolm Turnbull, while support for Turnbull over at The Daily Telegraph was running at about 31%.

All of which suggests there is something fundamental happening out on the fringes of public debate. It may not have a name yet, or a figurehead, but it’s not too much of a stretch to see the beginnings of a larger political movement, grounded in climate change denialism and resonating with older anxieties about immigration, refugees and Aborigines (for what it’s worth I don’t think it’s a coincidence we’ve seen an uptick in anti-immigration sentiment in recent months, or that portions of the Liberal Party are running so hard on refugees again).

There are some important differences between Hansonism and the new movement, not least the fact that whatever else it was, Hansonism was, in a very real sense, a grass roots movement, while climate change denialism has been assiduously fostered by powerful interests with a lot at stake (if you’re interested in tracing the role of big business in stalling action on climate change and discrediting the science I thoroughly recommend you check out the relevant chapter in George Monbiot’s Heat). And unlike Hansonism, the ranks of the climate change denialists are swollen by a solid cohort of wealthy older men. But I suspect that in some deep sense climate change denialism is drawing on the same discontent that Hansonism drew upon, and that despite the now-overwhelming scientific evidence, in the months and years to come it may well begin to gain ground in much the way Hansonism did a decade ago.

Break text

Paul Nicklen’s Polar Obsessions

A while back I linked to an amazing series of images of sailfish rounding up baitfish by National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklen. To commemorate the publication of Nicklen’s new book, Polar Obsession, National Geographic have now released an amazing video montage of his encounter with a leopard seal, an encounter that begins with the seal taking the camera and Nicklen’s hand in its mouth. It’s an amazing sequence, and the images are just breathtaking. If you’d like to see more of Nicklen’s work you can check out his website, which has a beautiful array of images (though it must be said the fact that they’re all watermarked to within an inch of their life does detract a bit from the viewing experience) or you can check out a selection of images from Polar Obsession on The Huffington Post (and vote for your favourite).

And while we’re on the subject of nature photography, the wonderful Wayne Levin (who I’ve also mentioned before) has just added a lot of new work to his website as part of the lead up to the release of not just one, but two new books next year. Most of the images are black and white underwater shots of the subjects he’s long been fascinated with (bodysurfers, marine animals) but a number were taken on a recent trip to the remote Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument as part of a scientific expedition by staff of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and represent a bit of a departure for Levin, not least because some of them aren’t only above water, they’re actually in colour.

Break text

Break text

Running Silent


The trails of dust devils on the Martian surface

Just a quick note to say sorry things have been a bit quiet around here, and to apologise in advance for the fact it’s likely to stay that way for another couple of weeks. If it’s any excuse I’m in the midst of something of a perfect storm of work and personal commitments (we moved house last Monday, and my partner is about to give birth to our second child in the next couple of days. And I’m still working at the Uni and have a book to finish, as well as all my normal freelance work, so it really is all a bit silly at present). But with a bit of luck I’ll get a few things up in the next little bit and then get back to posting properly in December.

In the meantime I’ll offer you three little tidbits from the last week. The first is the fact that while I was listening to a lecture about Flannery O’Connor the other day I realized that since she was only 39 when she died in 1964, she’d only be 84 if she were still alive today, which is not that much older than Philip Roth (76), Cormac McCarthy (76), Shirley Hazzard (78) or David Malouf (75) all of whom are not just alive but at the peak of their powers. So if O’Connor hadn’t died young there’s a good chance she’d still be writing, and even if she wasn’t she would have been until very recently. Which is strange, at least to me, since in my mind she’s very much a writer of the mid-20th century, and not the 21st.

The second is this broadcast about intelligent bacteria from the ABC’s All in the Mind program, which is very definitely worth a listen. I’ve long been aware of evidence that colonies of bacteria seem to possess organizational abilities beyond what we’d expect of individual bacteria, but I had never run across the suggestion that they themselves might be intelligent, either collectively or individually, so the talk of nanobrains in the program was exciting stuff. Want a refocussing of your perspective on the place of humans in the universe? I reckon this might be a place to start.

And finally there’s this rather magnificent gallery of images of the Martian surface. You can see black basalt sanddunes, organically curling dust devil tracks and the tracks of the Rovers, and while I’m a bit of a Mars tragic, it’s wonderful, almost painfully beautiful stuff. If you want to see more you might want to check out The University of Arizona at Tucson’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment.

Break text

addthisTweet this

A birdless world

Labrador Duck

Labrador Duck, Museum of Zoology, University of Michigan, © Phil Myers

A couple of weeks ago I reviewed Glen Chilton’s new book about his quest to see every known specimen of the extinct Labrador Duck, The Curse of the Labrador Duck, for The Sydney Morning Herald. It’s an pleasingly oddball little book, and while I don’t think Chilton is interested enough in exploring the larger issues his story raises, there’s something incredibly sad about the spectacle of Chilton making his way from museum to museum to inspect the often misidentified skins and eggs that are all that remain of the species.

But the detail from the book that’s stayed with me is an aside in the middle about the fact that even when kept in perfect conditions in museums stuffed birds last about 500 years. Put them out on display, expose them to daylight and changes in temperature and they perish even more quickly. All of which means that once a species is gone, it’s not just the living bird that’s gone, but, in reasonably short order, all physical trace of them.

Obviously there’s an anthropocentrism at work here, an assumption that somehow our knowledge of a species has larger meaning, but in this context I don’t think it’s wholly misplaced. After all, most of the species that have vanished in the last few centuries, and certainly almost all of the thousands more that are likely to vanish in the near future have been wiped out by humans. But speaking as someone who’s been woken at 4:30am every morning for the last week by the primal whoops and screams of Koels, Black Cockatoos and Channel-Billed Cuckoos, it also seems difficult to reconcile the silence of vanished birds with their raucous, vital presence, or to avoid the feeling a world without them would be a much smaller, and less joyous place.

Break text

addthisTweet this

Whale Sharks

I’ve just noticed my piece from September’s Monthly about diving with whale sharks at Ningaloo is now available online. You can read it (and a pretty impressive selection of other pieces from the magazine) here.

Break text

addthisTweet this