The title of this essay has been borrowed from Nobel Laureate C.V. Raman who summarized the results of his research on topics like the deep blue color of the oceans and sky, soap bubbles and their thin film colors, the structure of amorphous crystals like ice, etc. under this heading (early 1950s). I present here a few information nuggets and ponderings that fall under the purview of this title.
The Orchid Moth
Charles Darwin, the evolution theorist and author of the Origin of Species observed during his travels a variety of orchids on the island of Madagascar in which the bloom is at the end of a long stalk and the nectar is way down the stalk tube. Darwin wrote in long hand in his journal (1862) that it is very likely that the orchid moth with a long feeding tube exists which could deftly access the nectar and in the process help pollinate the plant. Darwin conjectured that the plant and the moth are co-evolved species. The moth was identified only about a decade ago by a team of National Geographic researchers using infrared photography. The proboscis is normally wound into a tight watch spring configuration and stretches out fully into the stalk. The proboscis is later withdrawn, wound back into shape and the process is repeated near the next bloom. When stretched out, the proboscis appears to be several inches long. If a few of these plants are carefully and in an ecologically safe manner transplanted elsewhere, it is not unreasonable to expect that the moth will appear at the new location, even if the site is a continent away.
The Herd Instinct
A few years ago, I went on a trip to sub-Saharan Africa, along with some other Indian Americans from Southern California to observe, at close quarters, the splendor of the wild animal kingdom. A park ranger in Botswana told us how the rangers had found several carcasses of young hippos mysteriously killed in the park, but not by poachers. The killers were identified to be the young male members of the elephant herd called “young turks” by the rangers. They chose to be bullies of the playing field. This herd, surprisingly, had lost its male leader to poachers prior to these incidents. An intuitive solution was arrived at to alleviate the problem. The rangers knew of the ongoing fight for herd leadership between two or three male tuskers in another herd in the grasslands. One of the contestants was tranquilized and brought over to take over the leadership for the orphaned herd. The rangers claimed that the expected transition miracle happened. The “young turks” accepted the authority of the giant tusker as the leader and discipline was restored quickly, thus saving other young hippos.
The Largesse of Mother Earth
Those among us who have been renters or owners of property for rent would have read through the fine print of a legal document called the “Renters’ Agreement.” Typically, the onus on the applicant includes first and last month’s rent, security and cleaning deposits, no pets or additions to the number in the family, sub-letting and no violations of home owners’ association rules. Mother Earth, who could be characterized as the owner of our habitat, instead, is very generous. She offers us our habitat rent free, free utilities including air, water and the ultimate source of energy, the Sun, no restrictions on the size of your family, a renewable supply of seafood abundantly found in the large oceans and the lakes, an ecologically balanced support system. The human habitat is a tiny part of the Universe. The rest of the vastness of space is most likely uninhabitable. We all have to share the lebensraum.
In extensive stretches of the Kerala coast, parts of Australia and Brazil, monazite is found in abundance. Monazite is a radio-active multi-element mineral. The radio activity level is low enough for plants and animal systems to survive harmlessly. In other words, there is no evidence of increased cancers or health problems arising from high natural levels of radiation. According to Eric J. Hall, Professor of Radiology, Columbia University, “Life on earth has developed with an ever present background of radiation. It is not something new, invented by the wit of man: radiation has always been there.” Nature has provided a safe radiation belt at or near the earth’s surface for all life forms. Sunshine is the most familiar forms of radiation. It is relevant to point out that in the Gayathri Mantra, considered the bedrock of all sacred prayers in Hindu religious philosophy, dating back to the era of the Rig Veda, the phrase: “Tat Savithur Varanyam,” (that Sun, the most desirable of all support systems) reminds us to be always thankful for the universal energy source.
Food For Thought
Our entire habitat is made up of the abundantly available elements in the Mendeleev Periodic Table, 118 are identified so far. Molecules are the basic building blocks of matter. The primordial bond that supports life is not between male and female or mother and child but the chemical bond between molecules. If two Oxygen atoms do not bond to form an Oxygen molecule, living systems will be unable to breathe. We have a Carbon based life support system on earth. (Science fiction writers have speculated on the “what if” scenario if another element, Si, was chosen instead of Carbon.) Many examples are available to illustrate how Mother Nature controls the delicate balance of the eco-systems to maintain life support. But it appears convincingly true that we humans are failing to do our part to protect our only habitat. We have been able to use hydrocarbon, fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas abundantly. Research and analysis, beyond any doubt, point to the need for climate control measures to reverse the damage from green gas emissions and consequent irreversible rise in global temperature.
The Beauty of Nature lies in the fact that the Universe has meticulously interwoven the basic sub-systems, (the Pancha Bhootas: earth, air, water, fire and space) in perfect unison to provide us all a precious habitat. The nature of beauty is that we, the humans, alone are privileged to observe, listen, work with and explore the intricacies of this entity and enjoy the miracle.
P. Mahadevan is a retired scientist with a Ph.D. in Atomic Physics from the University of London, England. His professional work includes basic and applied research and program management for the Dept. of Defense. He taught Physics at the Univ. of Kerala, at Thiruvananthapuram. He does very little now, very slowly.