Accidental Questions

Some of the best experiments are the ones that are accidental. Viewed from the right perspective, they can offer unanticipated insight into questions we didn’t even know needed to be asked. Discovering what happens when we release large amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere in a (geologically-speaking) relatively short amount of time is one example of an experiment in which most of us are participating, willingly or not.

The long-term adaptive abilities of humans and other animals to long-term radiation exposure is a question that’s been asked before, but the area around Chernobyl has been a particularly fine laboratory for study in the wild. Researchers from the British Ecological Society found that a variety of birds can, in fact, adapt to radiation exposure, but that long-term health depends on many species-specific traits and genetic factors.

The Wing (1512) Artist: Albrecht Dürer

The Wing (1512)
Artist: Albrecht Dürer

The result: A few species can adapt surprisingly well. Most don’t do well at all. Okay, it’s more complicated than that, but that’s the gist of it. It’s not that life isn’t thriving within Chernobyl’s 30-km (18-mile) exclusion zone, it’s that the life that’s thriving has undergone what one researcher called ‘unnatural selection’.

Another interesting question is the rate at which radiation disperses and decays across the northern Pacific Ocean. The aftermath of the Fukushima disaster has provided a long-term opportunity to observe how specific radioactive isotopes are carried by water currents.

Pond in the Woods (1496) Artist: Albrecht Dürer

Pond in the Woods (1496)
Artist: Albrecht Dürer

And while the United States government has determined that this is not a study worthy of official investigation, a number of local coastal communities have taken matters into their own hands and established several citizen-scientist groups to gather and test samples.

And now, another experiment, if we choose to see it that way: The disappearance of most of the plastic garbage swirling around in the world’s oceans. Researchers say that 99% of the stuff has gone missing. Sunk to the bottom of the sea, maybe, but much of the plastic is in minuscule fragments.

The operating assumption at this point is that all that plastic is being consumed by marine animals, large and small. And this, in turn, enters the human food chain in a variety of ways – as livestock feed, fertilizer, and of course, the fish on our plates.

So now we’ll have a chance to find out the effect of injecting large quantities of plastic into the world food chain.

As with the other accidental experiments listed here, studies will be long-term, ongoing, and not necessarily subject to voluntary participant approval, human or otherwise.

Arion riding a dolphin (1514) Artist: Albrecht Dürer

Arion riding a dolphin (1514)
Artist: Albrecht Dürer

Social Climbers

Emperor Penguin colony. The adults are the size of a large dog.
Credit: Zibordi / Van Woert, NOAA NESDIS, ORA

The Emperor Penguin (Aptenodytes forsteri) is big, as birds go, and as graceful underwater as it is ungainly on land. Its native habitat is Antarctica, and until recently, the bird has been considered ‘sea-ice obligate’, meaning it breeds and forages from sea-ice platforms.

The species hasn’t been considered under threat for time being, but given the changes that are occurring in its one and only habitat and the increasing instability of sea ice platforms, most long-term predictions are less than optimistic.

The Emperor likes to nest at the same sites year after year, and those sites do not always oblige any more by appearing in a timely manner.

However, the Emperor Penguin’s strong preference for keeping a regular breeding address might be matched by an unexpected adaptability in another area: its previously unknown climbing skills and its willingness to try something new.

Emperor Penguins on the edge of the Larsen Ice Shelf near the Jason Peninsula late in the breeding season. Note the ice cliff which is probably an insurmountable barrier to the adult emperor penguins. No evident route to the colony was determined from the images. Caption/Photo: Fretwell et al. / Ian Potten

Emperor Penguins on the edge of the Larsen Ice Shelf near the Jason Peninsula late in the breeding season. Note the ice cliff which is probably an insurmountable barrier to the adult emperor penguins. No evident route to the colony was determined from the images.
Caption/Photo: Fretwell et al. / Ian Potten

A new study has shown that there are colonies of Emperor Penguins that have reacted to the unreliability of sea ice in their usual spots by relocating to a higher elevation on a permanent ice shelf. It seems that thousands of penguins, rather than look for new sea ice platforms, instead trekked up sloping ice creeks and gullies to safer locations.

This doesn’t mean the species isn’t threatened by climate change in the long run.

Rather, it’s a surprising and positive illustration of adaptation to rapidly changing conditions.


Fretwell PT, Trathan PN, Wienecke B, Kooyman GL (2014) Emperor Penguins Breeding on Iceshelves. PLoS ONE 9(1): e85285. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0085285

Renewable Spring

Polyethylene strand

Polyethylene strand

In the spirit of eternal renewal, on this first day of spring I thought I’d talk about plastics. Infinitely adaptable, modern plastics are integral to modern life more than almost any other material. Plastics are the very stuff of modernity. Take away the excessive packaging, the unnecessary plastic bags, the plastic drink bottles and even the plastic baby diapers (none of which will ever really leave us, long after we have stopped producing and using them), we would still have a life based on some kind of plastic.

What is one of the best ways to know we are watching a film about old-timey times, or to make light of a backward culture? Everything is made or being done with wood, metal, horn, stone. No plastics.

A 17th-century definition of plastic describes something that is “capable of shaping or molding,” from Latin plastics, and from Greek plastikos “able to be molded, pertaining to molding, fit for molding.” Our human inventiveness has demanded nothing less than materials which can be shaped to our demands. It has only been during the last fifty years that the term ‘plastic’ has come to mean ‘false’ or ‘artificial’ in a perjorative sense.

We used to produce plastics that were based on natural materials we could mold. Horn, and later hard rubber. But, like all natural things, these have the tendency to break, to deteriorate, to lose their form.

So we adapted, and made better plastics. And now here we are, with a vast array of plastics based mainly on polyethylene, a material that is made from one of our other favorite elements of modernity, petroleum. Not only do we have plastics that do whatever we want them to, we also have them forever because even when are finished with them, they are not finished with us. We have mountains of plastic trash on land, vast , island gyres of plastics in the oceans, plastic molecules in our water and in our food.

It is impossible to think away plastics, no matter their immense downstream costs. At an annual production rate of 80 million metric tons (2008), plastics are big business, and they make big business possible wherever they are used.

Still: We can cut down our production and consumption, even if that process tends to come up against our stony stubbornness as humans rather than our plastic adaptability. We can find new materials to mold to our needs, ones that are lasting but also fall into their respective components after a reasonable amount of time has passed.

So, on this vernal equinox of 2013, I salute our ongoing ability to renew, to mold and adapt our expectations, to grow and find our way ahead even after a long, dark winter.

Oceans of GarbageVia:

Oceans of Garbage



Plastics Are Forever website

TED2013: The Young, The Wise, The Undiscovered – Plastic Eating Bacteria

Mother Jones Magazine article – Biodegradable Plastics

Addicted to Plastic (documentary preview)