Tuesday, 29 November 2011

DECEMBER 10th [Science Comedy Advent Calendar]

December 10th: Trilobites

You get a lot of ‘stuff’ at Christmas, don’t you?  It’s different kinds of stuff, yes; But a lot of ‘stuff’, overall. Some of the stuff is very obviously Christmas stuff, some of the stuff is everyday stuff that is just receiving more attention than usual because it’s Christmas.

For example, cheap decorations (tinsel, baubles etc.) and red bobble hats = Christmas stuff. Vegetables, nuts and winter clothing = regular stuff that is rendered festive by the Christmas period. And this first part of this piece has the word ‘stuff’ in it far too much, doesn’t it?

That’s sort of the point though. What defines ‘stuff’? It could be argued that it’s the sort of thing that is encountered often and/or in large enough quantities that it breaches the point where the human mind finds it necessary to specify it in any detail. And we encounter this sort of thing often at Christmas.

The brain is quite good at filtering and generalising when presented with too much stimuli. “What did you get for Christmas?” “You know, stuff” (Pairs of socks/pants, deodorant, slippers if you’re of a certain age group).  Those chocolates you get in the big tins, the ones that have nougat or that hard crystallised stuff which nobody can identify, they’re generally lumped together as ‘leftover stuff’.  And so on.

Scientifically, stuff has a different meaning. Dark Matter, for example, is ‘stuff’ because it is impossible to specify. There’s lots of it (supposedly), but scientists are very keen to actually see the bloody stuff (although by definition, that should be impossible). However, scientifically speaking, it’s rare for a species to be classified as ‘stuff’.

If any has managed this bizarre achievement, it’s the Trilobite. One of the most abundant fossil types you’ll find, it’s more of a species type than an individual species. Trilobites arrived on the scene, life-on-Earth-wise over half a billion years ago, and hung around for at least a quarter billion years. In comparison, humans are just at the point where we’ve crawled out of the sea.

Trilobites.  They spread everywhere. They swam, they hunted, they filtered, they grazed, they may well have dressed up like bats and fought crime (although this is doubtful as this was long before the existence of bats, or crime as we know it, probably).

Then they died out, as things often do. With their exoskeletons and widespread antics, they left durable remains everywhere, becoming the fossil equivalent of a pair of socks at Christmas; not something you’re unhappy about getting, but it will probably be thrown aside while you seek out the ‘cool’ stuff.

But there will come a time when you need the socks, and while that games console is riddled with bugs and just causes frustration and headaches, the socks are always reliable and useful. Trilobites are a bit like that. Despite the fact that most lay people would think of them as fossil ‘stuff’ (if they think of them at all), trilobites have taught us an amazing number of things. Or ‘stuff’, if you prefer.

Trilobites and socks at Christmas; generally ignored, but we’d be complaining if they weren’t around. We’re so ungrateful as a species.

Twitter: @garwboy


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