Monday, July 22, 2019

11 Explorations into Life on Earth, by Helen Scales

This beautifully packaged anthology summarises 11 Christmas lectures from the Royal Institution covering aspects of natural history. The lectures are:

  • "The Childhood of Animals" by Sir Peter Chalmers Mitchell (1911)
  • "The Haunts of Life" by John Arthur Thompson (1920)
  • "Concerning the Habits of Insects" by Francis Balfour-Browne (1924)
  • "Rare Animals and the Disappearance of Wild Life" by Sir Julian Huxley (1937)
  • "How Animals Move" by Sir James Gray (1951)
  • "Animal Behaviour" by Desmond Morris (1964)
  • "The Language of Animals" by Sir David Attenborough (1973)
  • "Growing Up in the Universe" by Richard Dawkins (1991)
  • "The History in Our Bones" by Simon Conway Morris (1996)
  • "To the End of the Earth: Surviving Antarctic Extremes" by Lloyd Peck (2004)
  • "The 300-million-year War" by Sue Hartley (2009)

Scales recounts the lectures, provides updates on some of the science and speaks to some of those who gave or attended the lectures. There are also a few photos and other archive documents.

The Christmas lectures are aimed at a lay audience including children, and there's lots on how children were involved in helping with the demonstrations or responded with excitement and awe. Last year I read Eric Laithwaite's book version of his 1966-67 lectures, The Engineer in Wonderland, and some of the physics was a bit heavy going. Scales is good at making the science here engaging and digestable, for all it covers a great deal of ground.

(In March, Doctor Who Magazine #536 included my feature on how Laithwaite's lectures were inspired by his meeting with Doctor Who story editor Gerry Davis about potentially becoming the series' first scienctific advisor.)

The lectures are fascinating historically: we see how long scientists have been warning about damage to the environment. They're also peppered with extraordinary detail about the natural world. For example, we're told Balfour-Browne was so devoted to water beetles that there's now an international water beetle conservation trust in his name. But when he shares his interest with the child audience, it's like something out of a horror film. First, he had recovered specimens hibernating in mud:
"When the beetles woke up in March, he watched the females drill holes in water plants to lay their eggs, which in time hatched into voracious larvae. The larvae grab prey in their formidable jaws, inject them with digestive enzymes and suck the juices out through tubes in their / mouths, leaving just their prey's empty, crumpled skin. He [Balfour-Browne] gave a graphic description of the greater silver beetle, a species with specialized jaws that act as a can opener to break into the shells of pond snails. And great diving bettle larvae are cannibals, he says, that 'have no respect for one another and four placed in a large tub were quickly reduced to one'." (pp. 48-9, the quotation from Balfour-Browne's own 1925 book of his lectures)
He also explains that wasps and bees can happily cohabit because they don't compete for food, the bees being herbivores and the wasps... well.
"Instead of pollen and honey, female wasps stock their nests with spiders, caterpillars and flies. The mothers sting and paralyse the prey to keep them alive and fresh, while making sure they can't walk off or fly away." (p. 42)
I had a ghoulish vision of vegetarian families turning a blind eye and affecting not to hear the endless screaming from next door.

The final entry in the book was of particular interest having just read Semiosis with its intelligent, communicative bamboo. Lecturer Sue Hartley details various different ways that plants fend off animal predators, and also communicate with one another to warn of impending danger.
"As well as talking to each other, plants also talk to animals. Wasps smell the plants' warning signals and fly in to investigate."
She demonstrates with a model of a caterpillar that threatens a particular plant - but inside the model there is,
"a handful of sticky goo and giant, model grubs. Inside the caterpillar, the wasp laid hundreds of eggs by piercing through its skin with a sharp egg-laying needle (called an ovipositor). The eggs then hatched and started eating". (p. 184)
Climate change threatens the balance in this long war between plants and animals. Hartley gives the example of aphids, who reproduce asexually - and a pregnant mother has a clone daughter inside her, who is already pregnant with her own clone child, "a system known as telescopic generations" (p. 186). Warmer conditions mean aphids reproduce even more quickly, so the predators that currently keep populations under control will no longer keep up.
"These aphids, she warns, are among the most dangerous pests, causing £100 million of damage to cereal crops every year ... If all [an individual aphid's] offspring survived, Hartley explains, there would be a layer of aphids covering the Earth 150 km deep, reaching half the way to the International Space Station." (p. 186)
 This is all the stuff of nightmares, and perfect for me as I continue to write stories with monsters.

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