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Sunday, October 02, 2005

Communing with the mysterious

From The London Daily Telegraph:

Cool, was what I thought. Well. It was more like cool. I thought it in italics. Who wouldn't? Looking at those photographs - green-lit and murky though they were - should have been enough to excite anyone. It was the story of the week. Labour conference be damned. What we need now is giant squids, as many as possible. Ever since I visited the Natural History Museum as a child, I have been just desperate for a sight of a real giant squid. Their model of one must have been a point of pilgrimage for generations of monster-loving schoolchildren like me. But it whetted the appetite without giving satisfaction. The size of it gave you a good sense of scale - enough for the imagination to go on - but the model itself had nothing aquatic about it at all; nothing alive. It was painted pink. It was in a bright gallery. It looked wooden or plastic. It looked dusty. What we wanted was something writhing and multi-tentacled; something mysteriously mottled, its skin semi-translucent and its surface slimy; something at home in the other element. We wanted to see some creature from HP Lovecraft with a vast, unblinking eye surge up out at us from the abyssal dark. And this week, thanks to the efforts of a pair of Japanese scientists, we got a glimpse. The squid-hunters had tried all sorts of ways of getting the shot. They had even strapped cameras to the foreheads of sperm whales, in the hope that, you know, the whales would get hungry and amble down to the bathyspheric depths of the ocean in search of a giant squid, and then they'd have a fight with the squid live on TV, and that would be even more cool. This was possibly not how they expressed it in their application for funding, though it should have been. snip Nevertheless, I don't think it a waste of money to be trying to find giant squid - any more than I think it a waste of money for us to investigate outer space. It not only satisfies scientific curiosity; it nourishes the sense of wonder. That sense is at its most acute halfway between superstition and science. If something mysterious is known, held up to sight and understood - if it can occupy a bright gallery in the Natural History Museum - it has joined the community of facts. It retires to the suburbs of some taxonomical catalogue. But if it is a rumour, a conjecture, just on the brink of being confirmed, it becomes intoxicatingly liminal: half myth, half reality. That's the big striptease: the one tentacle left on the hook like an elbow-length glove. The squid shows up, vamps a bit in the green light of science and disappears, like one of Forbidden Planet's "creatures from the Id", back into folklore. Even now, I read, there are darker, deeper bits of ocean with darker, deeper, bigger, weirder creatures waiting to be discovered. There's the colossal squid - a creature with even more vicious and huge tentacles than the giant squid. No doubt it will be followed by the ginormous squid and the gargantuan squid. But most exciting is the prospect of the "bloop". The bloop is a living creature so mysterious and enormous we know it only by the noise it makes. A submarine heard one on the sonar in 1997, and worked out by the sound pattern only that it is a living creature of some sort, and that it is much, much bigger than a blue whale. How would one even know how to start hunting a bloop? What does one eat? A religiously inclined friend once asked me: if you thought there was even the faintest possibility of an afterlife, wouldn't you instantly want to dedicate all your time and energy to trying to find out about it? I could, with hand on heart, have declared not. But finding a bloop would be another matter.
Excellent article worth reading in its entirety.


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