Invincible

29 Jul

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A naked man emerges from the cruel sea, the sole survivor of a terrible shipwreck – a painting by Jean-Louis-André-Théodore Géricault – the acknowledged founder of the Romanticist Movement. Romantics are inclined to spirited individuality, overt emotion, drama, and an affinity with the natural world – well that sums me up pretty well. Probably our best English Romantic painter would have to be J.M.W.Turner, whose lovely glowing images grace the National Gallery where the shipwreck survivor also hangs:

Turner Rain steam and speed

Rain, Steam and Speed – is my personal favourite.

Visiting London with my Dad this week, we took in the Imperial War Museum, the Natural History Museum and the National Gallery. I was struck by a romantic connection. All these buildings, apart from being the great store houses of riches and, through association romantic echoes of emotions from time long gone by are also, like the human body, frail vessels. The art I saw exuded the painters’ connecting us with our senses, the war artefacts and medals with the fear and horror of the civilians and combatants caught up in conflict, or the courage of the lone hero or heroine (particularly the fine Sainsbury Gallery housing many Victoria Cross and George Cross medals and citations), and the Natural History museum, capturing for us the moment of sheer unalloyed joy as the original scholar collector bagged some unsuspecting moth, bird or fish and popped it into a glass jar.

All these exhibits have been curated, that is carefully presented to the viewing public, labelled, ordered and displayed, framed, encapsulated, pinned and – these days video enhanced, modelled and animated. Names and attributions lend emotional weight to each object and the observer is free to project his or her romantic feelings using the object as a kind of touchstone.

“The term species, and the name of a living thing is but a hypothesis” my brother Tim said to me – “the scientific name of a species is not absolutely fixed in time or space, but depends upon the relationships and descriptions of other species”. We had gone from the station to rendezvous with him at his place of work. Not the usual opening gambit of a family visit, but then my (younger) brother has a most unusual cast of mind.

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Here is Dr Tim Littlewood, the Director of Life Sciences at the British Museum of Natural History, with my dad David S.Littlewood (concentrating very hard) as he describes his work. Steering this venerable Ark through the current storms of Government Funding cutbacks and the need to finding sustainable revenue income, whilst managing over 350 entomologists, palaeontologists, botanists, geologists and hundreds of other specialisms in Natural History he is like a modern day Hornblower. He showed me his own collection – a modest cupboard containing tiny phials of genetic material from parasitic worms. Russian Doll like vessels, within vessels – parasites being the sine-qua non of Zoological ephemera, yet so profound in their effect on us humans, our domestic livestock and the natural world.

But what did he mean “….a (species) name is just a hypothesis …”. Well, it would seem that even the name Terrible Lizard, or Dinosaur – a name coined by the great comparative anatomist and palaeontologist Richard Owen  is,  just at the end of the day a published hypothesis in a scientific paper – it might be more correct nowadays to call them “Terrible Birds” as our understanding of the affinities between the ancestor of the humble sparrow and Tyrannosaurus rex  has changed. Famous for his work on marsupials – those strange pouched mammals from ‘down under’ his specimens sit in large glass jars in the ‘Spirit Store’. Being the captain of the ark has it’s privileges, so Tim took dad and I into the vast store rooms of the museum to see jars, upon jars of weird stuff. Odder still to me was the fact that many of the larger glass containers which hold the original specimens are ‘creeping’. They don’t sit still – because glass, which is not a true solid, slumps and creeps over time. Coelocanths, sword fish, parrot fish, Owen’s Echidna specimens – you name it all sat in formalin or alcohol in giant deformed sweetie jars. If the jar has a red lid then this means that it contains the ‘holotype’ of the species – the original collected example from which the species was described and named – the zoological rubber stamp if you will. But, creeping glass, creeping ignorance and the creep of time itself all threaten the contents of this store house.

Romantically, it is easy to attribute value to a beautiful painting or a sculpture – humans have no difficulty paying money for beauty and skill if they covet it, or wish to show off their wealth. No one in the right mind would question the value of a Victoria Cross, nor the price tag of £60K or similar for one of these rare awards for extreme courage – though the question remains ‘why would any family sell it?’ (needs must one supposes, and greed must – of the collector). But a jar containing whale tape worms? Disgusting! A putrefying giant squid in a a fifty foot bath of formalin? Good grief! And what of little tubes of sink snot – my brother’s predilection?

Well, it turns out that it is the information encoded within the tissues themselves which hold the key to their value. DNA analysis enables Zoologists these days to unpick the deep ancestral relationships between living things and in so doing spotlight an whole new treasure in the hold of the Ark. For in being able to identify species from mere traces and bits of tissues leads to delicate forensic possibilities (catching the bad guys), finding out precisely what type of stupid bloody seagull mashed up a jet engine (bird strike), which plants may yield new potential crop species to feed the multitude, and what devious parasites might help protect them (or be debilitating us – and how to zap it). This ship holds treasure.

It needs a steer too.

Tim studied for his Ph.D. in the University of Kingston in the Carribean and the traditions of the University Alumni demanded that he be ‘launched’ as a postgraduate student. Thus ‘HMS Invincible’ made sail amidst the Oysters and their Parasites of Jamaica and his strong hand is now on the tiller of the BMNH. I’m just an old romantic, but I couldn’t imagine a better captain. But then I’m just an old romantic.

The fighting Temeraire, JMW Turner

The-Fighting-Temeraire

5 Responses to “Invincible”

  1. Stuart August 20, 2014 at 6:59 am #

    Beautiful prose.

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