Monday, 27 September 2010

How Long Before We Kill The Oceans?

On the 23rd September, the first independent, peer-reviewed paper on the size of the Gulf of Mexico oil leak was published in Science. It concluded that some 4.4 million (± 20%) barrels of oil escaped into the ocean, and that is after taking into account the 804,877 barrels that BP collected at the site. That equates to 127,965 cubic metres of oil that has been pumped straight into the sea.

We’ve all seen the pictures of the poor birds struggling to breathe and flap their wings upon the shore. Now extrapolate that millions of times and try to comprehend the utter destruction we are subjecting the most important ecosystem on earth to. Think of the suffering, but, in a more long-term stance, think of how it will affect population numbers of fish, marine mammals, plankton, algae and all those other vital organisms that never reach the headlines. The release of toxic chemicals such as benzene, napthalene and toluene will cause unimaginable amounts of death and suffering.

This devastation may well, of course, go unreported, because we have a habit of ignoring the way in which we abuse the oceans for all it’s worth. It really does seem that, because the carcasses are well beyond our horizon or beneath the waves, we do not see it as a problem. We have a history of this.

The (primarily Asian) delicacy of shark fin soup – as well as the irrational belief that its meat has healing powers – has led to the plummeting of shark populations worldwide. It is now commonplace to see a 90% decrease in shark numbers since 1970. What happens as a consequence? The sharks’ prey numbers escalate enormously, and in turn their prey collapse. The whole ecosystem is subject to uproar. Those species which do rise in numbers will eventually cave in due to over competition and not enough resources for them. It is thought about 75 million sharks are killed each year, although this number could be vastly larger due to lucrative illegal businesses. To put that into context, the British human population is 61 million; consider killing everybody in Britain, plus many, many million on top of that, each year. It equates to killing the population of Luton (205,000) each day.

Our methods of fishing are abhorrent. We cast kilometre-wide nets – by their thousands – into the ocean, weighted by heavy balls of metal. The nets sweep up everything in their path, regardless of what it is. The carcasses of turtles, sharks, dolphins and undesired fish are thrown over the side as bycatch. Simultaneously, the weights at the bottom of the net scrape along the ocean floor, ripping up whatever happens to be down there.

Remember that these organisms have lived in a delicate balance without us for millions of years. Our arrival, as relentless predators of the guardians of the oceans, will create unrivalled desolation. We are utterly raping the ocean, and I would not be surprised if it were dead within my lifetime. Why do we let it continue? I can think of no other reasoning but because the trail of destruction immediately sinks. It is out of sight, and so apparently, out of mind. Would such actions be tolerated if they were on land?

It is estimated that between 70 and 80% of the atmospheric oxygen comes from marine plants. As we have established, disrupting ocean food webs could cause this number to fall dramatically. Hence therefore, we have a selfish reason to preserve the oceans, as well as a moral one. The statement that we’ll not have any fish to eat in future is one that is almost too blatant to point out. The rises in ocean temperature, acidity and the tremendous pollution we are pouring into it are merely afterthoughts, despite the horrendous potential each has for ruining our seas.

We depend upon the oceans for our lives. I don’t know why people overlook such a major issue. Possibly because data are difficult to obtain for an accurate picture to be formed (as Professor John Shepherd said, "Counting fish is like counting trees, except they are invisible and they keep moving”)? Possibly due to scientific illiteracy, and governments not appreciating how vital a role they play? Possibly due to deluded ideas that the world is for us to harvest (as proclaimed in Genesis)? Possibly because the carnage is out of sight? Possibly because there will always be the demand, and illegal fishing is so easy? I suspect the reality is a combination of each of these poisonous explanations.

Paper cited:
Magnitude of the 2010 Gulf of Mexico Oil Leak, TJ Crone & M Tolstoy.
Published online 23 September 2010; 10.1126/science.1195840

Monday, 6 September 2010

A Short Note About Anti-Blair Protesters

I’m thinking of heading up to London to acquire a signed Tony Blair book on Wednesday. I looked up the details on the internet to learn that, surprise surprise, bloody anti-war protesters are hoping to arrest him.

Well, you inconsiderate louts, I think Tony has got the point. He’s not going to see you and think, “Oh dear, I thought they all wanted us attack Iraq. I totally misunderstood the millions that protested in 2003.” Even if he did, nothing can be changed now, you’re just clogging up the streets, making me angry and delaying the queues. So, shut up and stay at home. This is the most mindless expression of opinion, and I’m getting quite tired of hearing your opinions. Do you reuse your anti-war T shirts and banners every time you and your pals protest? Because your tedious arguments have been recycled over and over again for as long as I remember, whilst your attendance on Wednesday will not change anybody's opinion. Rather like every time the BNP are mentioned, people seem to find it necessary to go mental and shout about how much they hate Tony Blair whenever he’s in public. Fine, we get it. We know what you have to say. Everyone does. But we’ve formed an opinion in our own heads, peacefully and logically, as has Mr Blair. You don’t have to spoil my chance of obtaining a signed book from one of the most influential people of our time.

Alas, you won’t stay at home. Because I know how much you love protests, feeding off the passion of each other in a rather ugly positive feedback loop.


The Universe is Queerer Than We Can Suppose

That great evolutionary Biologist J.B.S. Haldane once said, “I have no doubt that in reality the future will be vastly more surprising than anything I can imagine. Now my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.” The words of this beautiful quotation are beginning to bear fruit, in what is a truly glorious reality check.

We have evolved on the surface of a relatively placid planet where nothing we need concern ourselves with moves too swiftly or sluggishly or is too massive or minute. Timescales we are accustomed to range from a few milliseconds to, perhaps, fifty years. The array of unsightly tissue in our skulls, known as the brain, has been selected to only comprehend matters on this scale. We should not, therefore, be disappointed when we are unable to grasp deep, underlying scientific principles. Indeed, we should exalt in it, for it is a constant reminder of our place in the universe, where we were never meant to comprehend the forces that have created us.

Our knowledge of the universe is bounded, first and foremost, by our imagination. Every theory that has ever been postulated had to first be dreamt up, based upon previous knowledge. However, we are reaching a point where we may become unable to dream up a hypothesis because the reality of the universe is so alien from what our brains have evolved to comprehend. Even seemingly fundamental ideas such as the electron, quantum theory and even mass itself are theoretically explainable, but only by making assumptions that we cannot logically justify. We don’t know why, for example, an electron can undergo quantum leaps, but we have a model of assumptions that can explain such phenomena to incredible accuracy. A single electron can travel through two slits at the same time: again, we can give a workable explanation, consistent with all known facts, but we will never be able to actually understand why. I feel we may soon reach a point when the model required to explain an observation is so complex and so unfamiliar to us that the truth will remain forever undiscovered.

Remember, our species is in its infancy. The knowledge that we have acquired about the universe is a mere fraction of everything we will ever learn – and everything we will ever learn is an even smaller fraction of what is actually out there. If, already, our imaginations are straining to understand what is going on in the universe, brace yourself for what is to come.

In a way, it is rather a conceited opinion for us to expect to understand anything that is going on in the universe. Why should we? We survive on a small fraction of one tiny planet, which itself is one of hundreds of billions in our humdrum galaxy; this galaxy itself is one of hundreds of billions of further galaxies in this universe; who knows, there may be hundreds of trillions of universes. The cosmos was not set up for our understanding, it exists independent of our wishes. There are secrets of the universe which will always be beyond our grasp. This is because we are using the brain of a prehistoric tribal ape from Western Africa: hardly the appropriate equipment to know the seemingly infinite cosmic space and time. Regardless, we can chip away at these secrets as best we can, in what is an amazing testament to our species. Who knows what will remain undiscovered?

It’s just a shame that no conscious entity will ever be able to know it.

Friday, 3 September 2010

My Love for Joe Hart

In a contrast from the theme of my previous posts, I’d like to express my love for Joe Hart.

This time last year, I told all those around me how he would be the best signing Birmingham City would make. I was proved resoundingly correct,  made all the more satisfying that many people didn’t even know who he was. I knew. Having watched him at the England Under 21 European Championships, I could see the confidence he held swaggering around the box. He scored a penalty and stood there, arms aloft, like he was The Man. It was remarkably refreshing to see that during an England shoot out.

We now see him as England’s undoubted number 1. But he’s only just – tonight – completed his first competitive international. Barely fifteen minutes into this match he was having a laugh with Glen Johnson after the defender was bailed out of a potentially embarrassing own goal. He made confident saves throughout, turning a clearance to an immediate England goal. He did, of course, produce yet another efficient clean sheet.

I am possibly one of Shay Given’s biggest fans. But Roberto Mancini’s decision to name Hart as number 1 over Given is one of the few correct selection choices the Italian has made. Hart is The Man. He will win over one hundred caps for England. He is the best goalkeeper in England, by a long way, by so many criteria. Hart will still be number 1 when my children begin to watch England games. Above all that, he’s an entertaining chap who doesn’t take himself too seriously. He does not seem to feel pressure, and I cannot say that with so much confidence about any England player I remember. He does not look like a weirdo like David Seaman or David James. He’s actually a bit of a pretty boy, with beach blond spiky hair and a cheeky grin. These may seem arbitrary factors, but how we – and the team – perceive a player is staggeringly important. We want someone who thrives in the limelight and wants the camera upon him, and Joe Hart is certainly that person.

I’m dryly pessimistic at every opportunity, especially with regards to football, and overwhelmingly with regards to the England national team. But we must cherish Hart. If we don’t, he won’t care, such is his confidence.

Why does he have to play for Manchester City?