Life in the dark

Going to the dark side at London’s Natural History Museum for New Scientist, 13 July 2018:

At some point in the last couple of years, someone at London’s Natural history Museum must have decided that it should get beautiful. In 2016 Colour and Vision set a high bar; Life in the Dark shows just how far they have come.

Parts of Life in the Dark are designed by the Jason Bruges studio, which is better known for huge, open-ended generative artworks like the digital crowd massing along a 145-metre wall at Sunderland’s railway station, and the liquid-crystal digital waterfall at Westfield Shopping Centre which, years ahead of the competition, proved that bytes, set free with the right algorithms, could be just as unpredictable and fascinating as actual water droplets.

Their work here at the museum is at a more modest scale, but unobtrusive it most certainly is not. There’s a room hung with card mobiles and a complex lighting track that fills with phantom bats as you walk through it, like a sort of 3D flickerbook.

The final room of the show is lit by bioluminescent denizens of the deep ocean – or at least, their digital avatars. Hung from a false ceiling above the visitors, Jason Bruges’s complex three-dimensional, 3000-point display accurately reflects the behaviour and movement of more than half a dozen species. Naturally, there’s been some poetic licence with the light-show’s strength and density.

It’s a moot point whether visitors will appreciate the careful research that’s gone into all those different blues dangling and flashing above their heads, or whether indeed anyone will notice that the animated badger and hedgehog are programmed not to approach each other on the video wall that greets you when you enter the exhibition. The journey as a whole is what matters, as the show’s curators lead us from English woods at sunset, through caves of ever-increasing depth and strangeness, into the deep ocean where suddenly everything and anything seems biologically possible, and not always in a good way.

Life in the Dark is an extraordinarily powerful (not to say downright creepy) exercise in letting go of everything you thought was normal in nature. The possum-like aye-aye’s needle-like middle finger, tapping for grubs under the bark of night-time trees, is bad enough, and it comes as no comfort to read that “If you go into a cave in Central America, you will likely see huge mounds of guano (bat poo) covered with feasting cockroaches.”

One inadvertent effect of this show was to confirm me in my lifelong aversion to caves. Given enough time, everything that lives in them evolves to go blind. Everything shrinks. Everything bleaches itself out – except for the African dwarf crocodiles who, thanks to the guano diet of their prey, turn a sickly orange. On learning that giant centipedes, Scolopendra gigantea, hang from cave walls to pounce on passing bats, I high-tailed it to the section about the deep ocean, and where, oddly for an environment that is mostly lightless, virtually no animal is blind.

Animals that inhabit the middle ranges of the water column use bioluminescence for camouflage, matching their self-made light to the dwindling intensity of downwelling sunlight. The eyes of the spookfish Opisthoproctussp point upwards to detect prey, while mirror-like structures in its belly reflect the bioluminescence produced there, breaking up its silhouette from below.

Lower still, brittle stars, Ophiomusium lymani, flash brightly to temporarily blind predators, while others produce a gently glowing mucus to signal their toxicity. The Atolla jellyfish, confronting a predator, uses a swirling “burglar alarm” display to attract even bigger predators, triggering the deep-sea equivalent of a bar-room brawl, through which it makes an unobtrusive exit.

New nocturnal species are turning up all the time, only 5 per cent of the world’s oceans have been explored, and there are bound to be cave ecosystems still awaiting discovery. It’s appropriate, then, as well as interesting, to learn something about the researchers who’ve contributed to this show. Who knows, the unobtrusive videos in this show may inspire a new generation of researchers.

They’ll have to be a lot less squeamish than I am, though.

The sooner we pave over this lot, the better

Venom: Killer and cure ran at London’s Natural History Museum to 13 May 2018…

Londoners! This holiday season, why not take the children along to the Natural History Museum? Its new exhibition Venom: Killer and cure brims over with fascinating and entertaining stories.

Have you heard about the emerald cockroach wasp (Ampulex compressa), which zombifies its cockroach prey with its sting before laying an egg on it that hatches into a larva that eats the cockroach alive while knowing, somehow, to leave its vital organs till last?

Too strong? Then how about the paralysis-inducing bites of the marine bloodworm (Glycera dibranchiata), whose copper-reinforced teeth are one of the toughest known structures in the natural world?

Oh, dear. There must be something child-friendly round here… How about the deer fly (Chrysops sp.)? The males feed exclusively on nectar! Unfortunately, the females feed exclusively on blood and have evolved an anticoagulant venom to keep their meals flowing.

Nods to some ingenious medicine aside, Venom seems hell-bent on convincing visitors that “nature” is a state of perpetual, terrible and gruesome conflict, and that – if your environmental competitors have their way – your whole lived experience is going to be filled with excruciating pain.

Those with strong enough stomachs will marvel at the ingenuity of nature’s torturers. Even the Iberian ribbed newt (Pleurodeles waltl), which hardly sounds the fiercest animal in the pantheon, has ribs which burst out through its poisonous skin to deter predators.

Those of a philosophic bent will appreciate the show’s underlying narrative, explaining how human cunning makes us the most efficient, though by no means the only, harvester of venom. There’s a sea swallow (Glaucus atlanticus) here, in the form of an extraordinarily delicate and beautiful glass model made by Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka. This pretty sea slug, about 2.5-centimetres long, eats Portuguese man-of-war (Physalia physalis) and collects their venom in its own tentacles, which it fires at predators to defend itself.

The fine-art crowd will thrill to artist Steve Ludwin’s 30-year project of no certain purpose: injecting himself with snake venom. Those of a literary bent, meanwhile, will savour the elegant phrasing of Justin Schmidt’s sting pain scale. Of the Western yellow jacket wasp (Vespula pensylvanica) he writes: “Hot and smoky, almost irreverent. Imagine W. C. Fields extinguishing a cigar on your tongue.”

Venom shows London’s Natural History Museum at its best: the exhibition is intimate, but not claustrophobic; unafraid of detail, but eminently accessible; visually arresting, but not exhausting.

I left trembling, angry and depressed. Had the show let me down? Quite the contrary: if anything, it had over-delivered.

How long, I wondered, must we put up with this ghastly horror-show world of ours? Why should we have to tolerate the way competing slow lorises (Nycticebus sp.) inflict festering wounds on each other, and male emperor scorpions (Pandinus imperator) feel the need to sting their females before they dare broach the subject of sex?

Venom has convinced me that nature is vile. It is pitiless and disgusting, and the sooner we pave over it the better.

Colour and Vision at London’s Natural History Museum

colour

The basic chemical and structural components of vision existed long before it evolved. Something happened to make eyes viable, although the exact nature of that innovation remains mysterious. But once visual information meant something, there was no stopping it – or life. For with vision comes locomotion, predation, complex behaviour, and, ultimately, consciousness.
for New Scientist, 3 August, 2016