Thursday, January 5, 2012

Science, Bacteria, and Possibly Invisible Fish

I write about space a lot. I like the idea of wide open emptiness, giant balls of dirt or gas or fire floating in a vast vacuum, whirling around each other at unfathomable speeds unfathomably distant from one another. Thus I tend to ignore a plethora of interesting things that are tiny.

Take for example the mimic octopus, also called the thaumoctopus mimicus. It has the ability to mimic other fish. It copies their shape, movements, and color in order to swim in the open waters with little fear of being eaten. Scientists have observed it mimicking a lionfish, a flatfish, and sea snakes. An octopus playing copycat with fish--now add this: a black marble jawfish mimicking the octopus. Which mimicks other fish. It's like a bunch of four-year-olds playing in the yard, except four-year-olds don't generally get eaten.

Now, if fish could manipulate time, they would be immeasurably safe from their predators. At Cornell University (where my uncle went!) a group of researchers managed to disrupt the flow of light for a fraction of a second. Anything that happened in that fraction of time was completely hidden from observers. If a fish could disrupt the flow of light as it reached our eyes, we would never know it was there. Imagine how many species could be wandering around unfettered, unnoticed, unhindered because they had the innate ability to disrupt the flow of light.

You know you're always missing one sock?--an invisible sock eater that can warp light. Poltergeists?--time travelers with a light warping film all over their body.

But let's go smaller than fish, because magnificence and spectacularity don't stop at fish-sized. Take bacteria. They're fantastic creatures that can survive all over the place--they eat iron, arsenic, and who knows what else. What can we do with them? We can kill them--in fact, we're quite good at that in most cases. But apparently, they are also the key to the future of space: microbial fuel cells may be the new batteries for our robots and rovers and things that go to space. But why stop there? Perhaps microbial fuel cells will also power our invisibility cloaks and time machines. They may even be the future of entertainment: scientists have recently created LED-like screens out of living, glowing bacteria.

In the novel "Hogsfather" by Terry Pratchett (one of my favourite authors), Death said quite sagely, "Human beings make life so interesting. Do you know, that in a universe so full of wonders, they have managed to invent boredom."

We're so silly.

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