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Oliver Morton

The Music of Science

Some people love watching birds. James Lovelock would rather ponder plankton, and he’s right

Oliver Morton | March/April 2012

Like his murderous employee James Bond, the spymaster M is a creature of arbitrary prejudice. But while Bond is mundane and joyless in his racism and snobbery, M’s targets are enjoyably unexpected. Near the beginning of Ian Fleming’s sixth Bond book, “Dr No”, the spy takes silent delight in his boss’s ranting about the Audubon Society: “People start preserving something—churches, old houses, decaying pictures, birds—and there’s always a hullabaloo of some sort. The trouble is these sort of people get really worked up about their damned birds…”

M’s tirade against the Audubon Society was in part a piece of self-mockery. Fleming was a keen birdwatcher; he borrowed the name James Bond from the author of “Birds of the West Indies”, which sat by his writing desk in Jamaica. My sympathy for it, though, is genuine. My dislike of birdwatching probably dates back to the childhood trauma of being taken on “trips to the seaside” which were in fact spent sitting in hides, and a lack of any facility for the pastime makes it easier for me to be outraged at the fact that the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds occupies such a large place in the British public’s affections. 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. Most of them, it must be admitted, are visually unappealing (which is fair enough, eyeless as they are). But some are not. Emiliania huxleyi, a single-celled photosynthesiser, coats itself with beautifully geometrical plates of lacy carbonate as delightful as a skylark’s song. Nor does it restrict its beauty to the microscopic realm. Its milky planktonic blooms spread across the seas in spring and summer like exquisite marbling on fine paper. 

I learned of Emiliania huxleyi’s charms from the great James Lovelock, whose ideas about Gaia have over the past 40 years become the necessary frame for scientific discussion of how, and how much, the Earth can be spoken of as “alive”. Lovelock is not above his moments of M-like irascibility. When, some years ago, I tentatively identified some small brownish job at the edge of the field we were walking in as possibly being a woodpecker under the misapprehension that, as a countryman, he might care, I discovered that he takes a dim view of the ability to recognise birds. He notes, correctly, that the cultivation of such skills often accompanies environmental beliefs—his dislike of which stands on firmer ground, such as an enthusiasm for organic farming and a rejection of nuclear power. 

Lovelock’s wonder at the world is not directed at the world’s contents. It is directed at the way the world works—at perceiving the processes from which the world ceaselessly and carefully weaves itself, from the cycling of elements to the circulation of tectonic plates. Another is that the sense on which he has most built his science is neither sight nor sound, but smell, a sense I believe birdwatchers have little use for. Lovelock is not a biologist; he is a chemist, and has the great gift of a chemist’s nose. 

It was this nose that, on walks along the coast, first alerted him to the chemicals given off by life in the sea. All sorts of chemicals necessary to life flow over time from the land to the sea. For life to go on, they have to find a way back. For many of these chemicals, the route back is through the air; dissolved compounds containing nitrogen, or sulphur, or iodine are turned into gases that escape into the atmosphere and blow back on to the land. The chemistry involved is mostly that of plankton and seaweed, and it is through their agency that life endlessly renews the Earth’s habitability. 

That insight led him on to other ideas of how the tiny plankton might have vast effects. In the 1980s Lovelock and colleagues suggested that, by changing the density of clouds over the open oceans, the volatile sulphur compounds given off by the likes of Emiliania huxleyi might, through chemical coagulation, change the characteristics of clouds over the sea, and thus the climate. A simple link between sulphur emissions and cooling the sea surface now seems unlikely. But the complex interactions of sulphur, sea-spray, plankton and clouds continue to provide a fascinating, if puzzling, focus for research at the intersection of biology, chemistry and meteorology—the sort of fruitful tangle that can only be found by looking at the world as a set of processes, rather than a collection of species.

Life is not so easy that any harmless sources of delight should be disparaged. But it remains the case that, for true inspiration, you can keep your great egrets. The haze of sulphur over a plankton bloom is a finer, richer thing. 

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