Thursday, October 22, 2009

Call him sperm whale poop

I understand from a report in The Telegraph that a British broadcast medium will try reporting news and issues of the day using impersonators for literary figures of the past:

Dr Samuel Johnson will be interpreted by the broadcaster David Stafford, John Ruskin, the critic, will be played by Professor Bernard Richards, a Ruskin expert at Brasenose College Oxford, and Jane Austen will be performed by Rebecca Vaughan, who wrote and performed in 'Austen's Women' at this year's Edinburgh festival.
I like it - if only because I dislike so much what so many broadcasters do when they don't impersonate anybody.

We are told, further, that "Dr Johnson will examine the knowledge economy and learn how to use the internet" and "Jane Austen,will consider modern courtship and the waning popularity of marriage," while left to guess what faux Ruskin will natter on about.

This made me imagine dead American writers we might bring back to talk about the news and issues of our day.

This deserves to be an occasional series, rather than a hurried roundup. So let me start by bringing back one dead American scribe - Herman Melville - to report on climate change.

Herman, of course, was the great poet of the sperm whale. As his news director, I would have him interview Trish J. Lavery of Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, who just busted out some fresh research about Melville's species of choice.

Turns out since Hermie kicked, sperm whales have been getting a bum rap for allegedly breathing out skads of carbon that contributes to greenhouse gas buildup, and thereby global warming. Bad sperm whale! Bad, bad!

According to Science News, Trish is putting the kebosh on that slander. A whale whose name is associated with a bodily fluid is actually rehabilitating its reputation through a bodily solid. It's all about diving to the depth and bringing up iron that, returned to the surface of the ocean, nourishes plankton that scarfs on - y'all guessed it - carbon.

Using numbers from studies of feeding and nutrition, Lavery and her colleagues calculate that each whale brings up about 10 grams of iron a day from the depths
and then defecates it at the surface. The beauty of this sperm whale output is that it takes the form of drifting liquid plumes that can feed life in the upper ocean, Lavery says. She notes that experiments with iron have struggled with iron fertilizers that clump and sink before upper-water plankton can eat all of the goodies. Yet, she says, those experiments document measurable carbon trapping with even less iron fertilizer than sperm whales contribute.
I know, I know, I know: this clip talks of "the beauty of this sperm whale output," when said output is sperm whale poop. Bad Branson dinner theater joke in there somewhere. How many scientists does it take to see beauty in sperm whale poop? Just one I guess.

And I know just how I'll coach old Herman to start his every stand-up on camera: "Call me Ishmael!" And, then, in this instance, "Or, call me sperm whale poop! Reporting from the Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals in Quebec City, Canada ..."

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