Friday, March 26, 2010

To reach the unreachable star

Here is an image from the journal Nature's annual roundup of impressive scientific images -- a photograph of a see-through deep-sea sea cucumber, discovered last year 2,750 meters down in the Gulf of Mexico. Not at all like those leathery, opaque and god-awful ugly sea cucumbers that occasionally wash up on our beach in the Bahamas. This fellow (or is it a she?) is exquisitely lovely, jellyfish-like in its diaphanous beauty. Life reduced to its basics: a mouth, an intestine, and an anus. (click to enlarge.)

No brain. An elemental nervous system. Primitive vascular system. Rudimentary sex organs. Eat and shit. Make more of the same.

Aren't you glad we aren't transparent. All that digestive plumbing on permanent display. Of course, down in the pitch-dark deep where Enypniastes lives, transparency doesn't matter.

From such humble beginnings sprang we all. Eat, shit, make more of the same. The rest is gravy. Dante's Divine Comedy. Chartres Cathedral. Bach's Saint Matthew Passion. The Hubble Space Telescope.

And, yes, what may be the most marvelous conception of all -- the common descent of all creatures on Earth, the incremental honing of suitability, turning clusters of raggedy neurons and calciferous cells into a softball-sized powerhouse of cognition at the top of a bony spine. Eat, shit, make more of the same -- and dream the impossible dream.

(I believe this is the first time I have used here a naughty word. The technical or euphemistic terms just lacked the rhetorical punch. Image credit: Laurence Madin, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.)