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

Time Pressed

Seaweed collection circa 1850 Source: Collector's Weekly

Seaweed collection circa 1850
Source: Collector’s Weekly

The Victorians liked collections of all kinds, but those of objects of nature were among the most popular. The bit of the glamour and glory of the great era of exploration could be had in gathering one’s own seashells, or taxidermied animals, or skeletons, or in a version previously unknown to me, seaweed.

Seaweed collections apparently became popular with Victorian ladies around the same time as scrapbooking.

Three pressed seaweed specimens were likely collected near Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, by Mary A. Robinson, circa 1885 Source: Collector's Weekly

Three pressed seaweed specimens were likely collected near Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, by Mary A. Robinson, circa 1885
Source: Collector’s Weekly

In Fukishima today, work begins on the extraction of over 1500 nuclear fuel rods from the destroyed nuclear power plant there, two-and-a-half years after the earthquake and tsunami that devastated the area. The rods have been sitting in storage pools of water – they’ll be removed by crane and robot, and transferred to a more reliable storage facility.

And while the Wikipedia page on ‘Radiation effects from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster‘ cheerfully explains that health and environmental risks from leaked radiation really aren’t all that dire (the page is flagged at the top with a note questioning the neutrality of its content), reports of spills and ongoing leaks don’t inspire much confidence.

And so, 150 years after the samples shown here were collected and pressed for posterity, gathering seaweed along the rim the Pacific Ocean takes on a less picturesque significance, namely that of testing for radiation exposure.

Two identification diagrams from David Landsborough’s “A Popular History of British Seaweeds,” which was first published in 1849. Source: Collector's Weekly

Two identification diagrams from David Landsborough’s “A Popular History of British Seaweeds,” which was first published in 1849.
Source: Collector’s Weekly