All Creatures Great And Small

In the midst of his paean to plankton over at More Intelligent Life Oliver Morton compares fascination with microbes to fascination with birds.   After admitting to a personal distaste of the latter, he continues:

But I would also claim at least a hint of an intellectual justification.  Birdwatching seems to embody a belief that nature is best appreciated through the observation—and cataloguing—of its component parts in all their variously plumed and differently warbling specificity.

Such contemplation seems sure to miss the glories of the whole by concentrating on its least relevant parts. The vast majority of the life that matters on this planet—the life that keeps the planet habitable—consists of microbes.

On its face, that’s a pretty sharp dig at a wide community of ornithologists (both professional and amateur), none of whom would likely concede that birds are somehow insignificant when compared to a bunch of krill.  It also seems to suggest that all of the fully formed macro-species on the planet – whether dolphins, gorillas, or porcupines –  are akin to hood ornaments while plankton are the true fuel inside the planet’s engine.

Morton is sticking up for a worthy underdog here – oceanic microbes, though not particularly cuddly, do indeed make a lot of things possible without getting much love from the general public.  And as he goes on to explain, his attitude has more to do with a general curiosity about the world’s natural processes than any acute fauna-phobia.  But I sense that the rub is not so much about plankton as it is our collective ability to think about scale.  As a species, humans are not very good at wrapping our brains around things that are extremely large or extremely small.  On a day to day basis, we operate within a mental realm defined by the upper and lower bounds of each primary sense – what we can readily see, smell, taste, etc.  Anything we have to use an instrument to detect requires a new schema and a not-insignificant amount of imagination.  Psychologists have noted for years that we can deal with small units – 1 inch, 50 feet, 7 dollars, 2 liters – easily because we encounter them so frequently.  Birds have sizes and dimensions that fall within those conceivable measurements, so they make sense and thus feel “real” to us.  But what to do when talking about plankton, which are typically measured in microns (1,000 microns = 1 mm)?  Or, inversely, the diameter of the sun, which is 865,000 miles, the equivalent of 33,015 Boston Marathons or 291 trips back and forth between L.A. and New York?  At some point, extremely large and small numbers take on an abstract quality, a surreal vagueness that can’t even be properly conceptualized.

On some level, everybody in this day and age understands that the world is a much more complex place than he/she can really imagine.  But it has not always been that way.  17th century bishop James Ussher famously worked backward through Old Testament lineages and calculated that the  earth was created in 4,004 B.C.  A half-cheer for his efforts – he was, after all, attempting to make a reasonable calculation based on the time frame that was familiar to him.  But bigger thinking was eventually required and carbon dating now, ahem, politely disagrees (there are rocks in Western Australia alone that are known to be more than 3.4 billion years old).  Aristotle, a pretty smart guy in his day, wouldn’t have known what to make of a googolplex.  It took several medical generations (and countless cadavers) to realize that the human body was not actually an impenetrable fortress against microbes, but instead one giant, teeming petri dish full of them.  There are countless other examples, but expanding knowledge has almost always meant grappling with scale.

In a funny way, incredibly large numbers might actually help stimulate the public’s engagement with scientific news in a way that run-of-the-mill numbers do not.  When we hear that the world’s smallest frog, discovered in New Guinea in January, can sit comfortably on the face of a dime or that a hypothetical Lego Death Star (built to scale based on the size of a Lego person) would be more than 3.5 kilometers tall and include 1.2 x 1015 individual Lego pieces, we stop and take note.  Virgin Oceanic is planning to take a submersible to the bottom of the Mariana Trench and it needs to be able to withstand pressure that is equivalent to 16,165 psi, or “the weight of four pickup trucks pressing on an area the size of a postage stamp.”  The mind boggles at that number, but we know it’s an impressive feat all the same.   Vast numbers can be almost pornographic in that sense – outlandish and exciting, but abstract and detached from an individual’s own experience at the same time.

So, to Morton’s original point, perhaps we should all spare a few more thoughts for plankton.  Our microscopic friends do regulate the ocean’s oxygen cycle, after all.   You won’t find them on display at any zoo, and they don’t capture the popular imagination quite like birds and other animals.  But it’s following in a long scientific tradition to contemplate things much greater and much smaller than our normal existence would otherwise give us reason to.

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