Consider the Tardigrade

From a remarkable Aeon essay on ‘extremophiles’ (creatures that can survive in extreme conditions) by the evolutionary biologist David Barash:

Typical extremophiles specialise in going about their lives along one axis of environmental extremity – extreme heat or cold, one or another heavy metal, and so forth – tardigrades can survive when things get dicey along many different and seemingly independent dimensions, simultaneously and come what may. You can boil them, freeze them, dry them, drown them, float them unprotected in space, expose them to radiation, even deprive them of nourishment – to which they respond by shrinking in size. These creatures, also known as water bears, are featured on appealing T-shirts with the slogan ‘Live Tiny, Die Never’ and in the delightful rap song that describes their indifference to extreme situations, entitled Water Bear Don’t Care.

Tardigrades might be the toughest creatures on Earth. You can put them in a laboratory freezer at -80 degrees Celsius, leave them for several years, then thaw them out, and just 20 minutes later they’ll be dancing about as though nothing had happened. They can even be cooled to just a few degrees above absolute zero, at which atoms virtually stop moving. Once thawed out, they move around just fine. (Admittedly, they aren’t speed demons; the word ‘tardigrade’ means ‘slow walker’.) Exposed to superheated steam – 140 degrees Celsius – they shrug it off and keep on living. Not only are tardigrades remarkably resistant to a wide range of what ecologists term environmental ‘insults’ (heat, cold, pressure, radiation, etc), they also have a special trick up their sleeves: when things get really challenging – especially if dry or cold – they convert into a spore-like form known as a ‘tun’. A tun can live, if you call their unique form of suspended animation ‘living’, for decades, possibly even centuries, and thereby survive pretty much anything that nature might throw at them. In this state, their metabolism slows to less than 0.01 per cent of normal. Compared with them, a deeply hibernating mammal is living at lightning speed.

In the bad old days of the Cold War, we used to think that the only living things that would survive a nuclear holocaust would be beetles. Now that we are headed for a climate catastrophe, my money’s on the tardigrades.

UK this way

We’ve been in France, as usual. Coming back yesterday, ours was the first car onto the Eurotunnel Shuttle. So, in a way, this was the road to the UK.

Booming tech and rising inequality: correlation or causation?

This morning’s Observer column:

Here is one of the great paradoxes of our time. The world is dominated by a few corporations that are among the most profitable companies in the history of capitalism. In the US (the home of these giants) and in the UK (an enthusiastic vassal state), parts of the economy are booming and employment is at record levels. And yet, in the middle of this astonishing prosperity, inequality is at levels not seen since the period before the first world war. In the US, the share of total income going to the top 1% of the population is now back to the level it was in the 1920s. And in the UK, more than 4 million people are trapped in deep poverty.

Since this catastrophic rise in inequality seems to be correlated with the rise of the tech industry, it’s tempting to see a causal link between the two. Tempting, but too simplistic. For while digital technology has been a central factor in what’s happened, it’s only a part of the story. More often, it’s been an enabler of other forces rather than a prime mover.

The biggest force reshaping our world has been globalisation…

Read on