Sunday, November 30, 2014

Kelp Forests of the Galaxy

The buzz of the fan competes with the whirring of the fridge’s motor, drowning out the sounds of insects and birds outside. The sun is bright and merciless on the mountains, but they are bright green in defiance. Apparently leopards lurk in these hills. I would hope they do, the last of the Cape’s big cats, solitary predators that have avoided the reach of man.

Bain's Kloof, where I wrote this post. Life is hard...
I’m more frightened of baboons than leopards, and we have been cautioned to keep the cottage closed for fear they might come in and maraud the kitchen. Cape baboons are terrifying creatures; the males have fangs that would rival any vampire’s.

I’ll be honest with you: I’m not particularly fond of primates in general. This does not mean that I hate them or anything. Chimpanzees and gorillas and orang-utangs should be left alone. I hate that we anthropomorphise them, never mind hunt them in some societies or use them for comic relief in films. And any form of cruelty to animals is horrific. But there is something about the shit-flinging of chimps that annoys the crap (!) out of me. Probably because we did the same, aeons ago. I don’t like monkeys being kept as pets either. Vervet monkeys in KZN are a particular pest as well. And far more dangerous than some would believe. They are wild animals, and wild animals that are not particularly frightened of humans.  Let me not start with vivisection, I am horrified by it and I have to live in a cloud of hypocrisy because much valuable information has advanced medicine from this necessary evil.

No. Just no.
Horses I don’t particularly like either. Actually, it’s not so much the horses as horsey people. I would want them to roam free, not be castigated by high-society, chardonnay-sipping mink-manure types who see fit to trample their muddied and shit-caked boots wherever they like. (Okay, some horsey people are lovely, for example, my niece and some dear friends in Tzaneen. But in my experience they are the exception.)

And horses, also, do not seem to like me: perhaps they sense my inner wolf. I’ve ridden them before, but they always bolt and try and throw me off. And, the smell. No thank you.

No. Give me panthers and wolves and bears, please. Give me dolphins and whales and seals and otters. Even giant squid hold more fascination for me than the fellow members of my mammalian order. I even appreciate bats, particularly fruit bats: of my favourite memories of visiting the Seychelles are the giant fruit-bats with their foxy faces swooping down at sunset to perch upside down in the palm trees.

My favourite spot in the Two Oceans aquarium is the giant tank with the kelp forest that sways to and fro in a hypnotic rhythm. The underwater rhumba is awe-inspiring and calming; I zone out here in the best of ways. It’s a beautifully recreated exhibit of some of the loveliest waters on our planet. Out here, right now, writing in this beautiful spot in a green valley in the Bain’s Kloof pass, one would hardly register that from space the Earth is mostly blue. The Blue Marble, verily.

The "Blue Marble" photgraph in its original orientation,
South Africa is at the top. As it should be.
Interestingly, that famous picture of Earth taken from space, in its original orientation, showed Africa “upside-down” — the photograph was swivelled 180º so that it would look more familiar to us. As I’ve noted before, there is no “upside-down” in space, the only orientations we could possibly infer from a planet is its axis and the plane of its ecliptic around the star which it orbits. But that could be in any direction.

However, stars do form a disk of denseness in a galaxy; the Milky Way is relatively flat, for example. I love the fact that given enough randomness, order often emerge. If there is enough matter around in a local area of space, it will clump together to become spherical. This is one of the prerequisites for being called a planet (major or minor). Our Earth is basically a sphere (okay, an oblate spheroid if you want to be picky) and so is the Moon. A comet or asteroid does not have enough mass to form this shape, so it remains unequally shaped.

Is it a star? Is it a planet? Not quite either...
Notwithstanding the amazing feat that we recently landed a spacecraft on a comet, I was a little sad that we’ve never sent something to Ceres, the only (minor) planet in the asteroid belt. Poor Pluto was demoted to this status recently; it’s not even the biggest of the minor planets. Eris is bigger, as well as an even more distant one (or are there two) with beautiful names of Hawaiian deities I can’t remember right now.

Recent evidence suggests that the largest planet in out Solar System, Jupiter, is not so much a planet as a failed star. Were it bigger it could well have ignited and formed the faintest of stars, so-called brown dwarves. There are many in our galaxy, and they themselves can cool to form proto-planets. They’re just too dim to be observed. The Earth is part of a remnant of a massive star that was torn apart to form our current sun and her various children, the rocky ones (us, Mercury, Venus, Mars), the gaseous ones (Jupiter, Saturn) and the icy ones (Uranus, Neptune). Many people realise that besides being crushed by the gravity you wouldn’t be able to actually walk on the surface of Jupiter, because it’s made of gas. We can only live on rocky worlds, and then only if they are the Goldilocks distance from the sun where we can have seasons with the correct axial tilt and, of course, oxygen and liquid water.

Could we ever be able to colonise another planet? And would we bring with, ark-like, said wolves and panthers and bears? (Or, we could always have the reverse scenario... Planet of the Apes much?)

I was both captivated and frustrated by Christopher Nolan’s epic “Interstellar”. I thought the director and producers captured the relativity physics relatively (no pun intended) well, and though the conception of traveling beyond the black hole’s event horizon was a bit mawkish, from a story arc point of view it worked beautifully. I would have liked Matthew McConaughey to have been less leaden in his performance; John Lithgow outshone him as the grumpy but caring father-in-law and Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain were simply spectacular.

And here you will find me at peace.
If we meet aliens, I hope they are wise and caring like the guardians in the Green Lantern comics or zany like the Solomons in 3rd Rock From The Sun (another area where John Lithgow gave one of the most hilarious performances in the history of television.)

Or, perhaps the aliens are already among us; maybe they are the kelp forests, swaying to and fro incessantly, watching and waiting... watching and waiting.

Maybe that’s why I’m so drawn to that exhibit. Maybe the kelp senses my little cosmology-addled brain, and is trying to communicate with me. I wonder what it’s saying. Come swim? Stop polluting the planet before we start colonising you and eat your little soft bodies? Thanks for the sunlight? Aren’t octopi cute? Douglas Adams was right about the whales?!

I’ll let you know if I wake up covered in seaweed, but for now, you may find me staring at that tank on my next post-call weekend... who knows what the kelp might tell me.

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