There is something about eclectic knowledge that I find increasingly fascinating as I get older. It seems highly likely that almost all of it will be of no use whatsoever to me – rather like everything I learned for my O Level chemistry exam in 1981 – but the thing about knowledge is that you never really know when it will come in handy. As someone much wiser than me once put it, it is much better to be prepared and not needed than to be needed and not prepared.
Newspaper stories can offer occasional wisdom, but too often they are designed to attract attention, especially the online versions. However, I was particularly struck by a story from the Daily Telegraph that I read back in August. I hasten to add, in case you are not aware, that the Telegraph is not my newspaper of choice. It was the paper my parents used to have delivered back in the days when people used to do such things, and I always enjoyed the high quality of the sports reporting, but I am not naturally aligned to the paper’s views and I read this story on my iPad as part of a BBC News round-up – just so we are all clear.
The headline read: ‘Shellshock! Tortoise Hunts and Kills Chick’, and the article went on to explain that conservationists counting terns on Fregate Island in the Seychelles had come across a surprising hunter-killer – a slow moving, previously herbivorous, giant tortoise. A researcher had caught the action on camera as the creature moved in slowly on a chick that had fallen out of its nest. The helpless youngster was subsequently gobbled up, which is apparently the first hard evidence of tortoises eating live animals. It was the final line that really caught my eye, when the journalist felt the need to explain that their lack of speed and dexterity means that tortoises are nevertheless one of the least efficient predators on the planet. Thank goodness for that clarification!
If we want to know a bit more about how the world actually works, we could do a lot worse than to read the work of Randall Munroe. If you are looking for a good Christmas present for the intellectually curious, I can happily recommend his book ‘What If?’, in which the author uses theoretical science to answer unusual questions that he has been sent by readers of his blog – which is clearly much more interesting than mine. Examples from the back cover of the book include: ‘What would happen if absolutely everyone jumped at the same time?’ and ‘How many humans would a rampaging T-Rex need to eat each day?’
Some of the science – well, most of it actually – was beyond my limited range of understanding, but it was nevertheless a really interesting read. One of the pupils at school emailed me at the start of term to say that he had really enjoyed it, as well as Munroe’s other book ‘How To’, and asking for a recommendation for what he might read next. I suggested ‘Maths on the Back of an Envelope’ by Rob Eastaway, in case anyone is interested, though I should have added Bill Bryson’s ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’, which remains the best ‘science for the non-scientific’ book I have read.
There were some lovely nuggets of information in ‘What If?’ For example, approximately seventy-five per cent of the world’s population lives between 0° E and 120° E; the story of Icarus is not a lesson about the limitations of humans, but a lesson about the limitations of wax as an adhesive; the interval between the start and end of the Proclaimers’ song ‘I’m Gonna Be’ is three minutes and thirty seconds. The International Space Station is orbiting the Earth at 7.66 km/s, which means that if an astronaut on the ISS listens to ‘I’m Gonna Be’, in the time between the first beat of the song and the final lines they will have travelled just about exactly 1,000 miles; and if you want to transfer a few hundred gigabytes of data, it’s generally faster to FedEx a hard drive than to send the files over the internet. It is known as the ‘SneakerNet’ and it is even how Google transfers larger amounts of data internally.
The modern pronghorn (American antelope) presents a puzzle (as well as being able to see the rings of Saturn because it has such enhanced vision, apparently – how do they know this?). It is a fast runner – in fact, it’s much faster than it needs to be. It can run at 55 mph and sustain that speed over long distances. Yet its fastest predators – wolves and coyotes – barely break 35 mph in a sprint. Why did the pronghorn evolve such speed? The answer is that the world in which the pronghorn evolved was a much more dangerous place than ours. A hundred thousand years ago, North American woods were home to the dire wolf, the short-faced bear and the sabre-toothed cat, each of which may have been faster and deadlier than modern predators. All died out in the Quaternary extinction event, which occurred shortly after the first humans colonised the continent, but somehow the pronghorn survived.
Finally this week, to remind us, as if we needed to be reminded, of the reality of most of our lives, Monroe points out that a hundred billion or so humans have lived since we became the species we are, but only seven billion are alive now, which gives the human condition a ninety-three per cent mortality rate. He goes on to say that eventually all humans will die out. Nobody knows when, but nothing lives forever. Without us, Earth’s geology will grind on. Winds and rain and blowing sand will dissolve and bury the artefacts of our civilisation. Human-caused climate change will probably delay the start of the next glaciation, but we have not ended the cycle of ice ages. Eventually, the glaciers will advance again.
A million years from now, very little trace of human beings is likely to survive. However, our most lasting relic will probably be the layer of plastic we have deposited across the planet. By digging up oil, processing it into durable and long-lasting polymers and spreading it across the Earth’s surface, we have left a fingerprint that could outlast everything else we do. Our plastic will become shredded and buried, and perhaps some microbes will learn to digest it; but, in all likelihood, a million years from now, an out-of-place layer of processed hydrocarbons – transformed fragments of our plastic bottles, shopping bags (and face masks) – will serve as a chemical monument to our civilisation. A sobering thought, for sure, but I always think it is helpful to have some wider perspective, particularly at this time of year.