A Scientist and a Novelist Walk into a Bar with Steve Palumbi

A Scientist and a Novelist Walk into a Bar with Steve Palumbi


Thank you very much, and many of you, I know,
are from Monterey. We know Monterey as being such an incredibly beautiful place to live;
a shore that is coveted by everyone, full of wildlife, full of beauty. It is also home
to the Hopkins Marine Station. We have been here for over 100 years. The very first president
of Stanford, David Starr Jordan, was ranked as the best fish biologist in the world when
he became the president of Stanford. He wanted Stanford students to be able to learn marine
biology. The Hopkins Marine Station was established. We had our first set of students come by in
1892, and we have been in Monterey ever since. The station, sitting next to a newcomer you
might have heard of called the Monterey Bay Aquarium, has seen a lot of changes in Monterey,
because although it’s stunningly beautiful now (these are the rocks outside the Hopkins
Marine Station), it wasn’t in the past. Seventy or eighty years ago when the canneries were
going strong, they were processing a million pounds of sardines a day. 100,000 pounds of
fish guts were going into the bay. The air was foul. The water was foul, and the wildlife
was gone. The whales were gone. The seabirds were gone. The abalone were gone. The sardines
eventually were gone. Carolyn Sotka and I wrote about this in a book that came out about
3 years ago called The Death and Life of Monterey Bay, because
what you are sitting in the middle of right now is an incredible revival story, because
the story is not that Monterey just got worse, the story is that it got better, and the book
talks about that. Along the way, we’ve discovered that there’s many characters that really play
a role. I want to tell you a little bit about this one; it’s cute. The sea otter. Now, the
reason why the sea otter plays strongly in the first book is that it has two traits that
were incredibly important to it’s role in the decline of Monterey Bay, and then it’s
recovery. The fur is fabulous. 800,000 hairs per square inch. Soft, beautiful and warm.
These are small animals. They live in cold water and that fur keeps them warm. So, they
were hunted to nearly extinction. 100,000 otters were taken off of this coast in the
1800’s for the fur industry. But, the other feature of otters that makes them really important
is they’re hungry. They eat a quarter of their body weight a day in fresh seafood. They have
an incredible metabolism to keep warm in this cold water and because of that, they keep
the ecosystem in balance. Without them, herbivores ran wild. Sea urchins ran wild along the coast;
they at the kelp and the kelp forest virtually disappeared in the late 1800’s. Now the kelp
forest is back because in April 1963, the otters came back to Monterey Bay. They came
to the Hopkins Marine Station, where a marine protected area had been established by Julia
Platt a few days before. So we saw a reassembly of this ecosystem from Hopkins and that spread
around the bay. Now, in that book, we focus a lot on the otters and we discovered this
interesting fact that these stories make a big difference. That it’s an interesting way
to teach people science and also, an interesting way to get people engaged in what’s happening.
So as a consequence, the next book which is out this month, I’ve written with my son,
Anthony, who is also a graduate of the Creating Writing program at Stanford 2005, and the
idea is to combine the skills of a novelist (that’s Tony) with a scientist to try and
paint the narratives of the stories of these critters as they live their lives. You know, sharks are extreme, but there’s
a lot more that’s out there in the ocean that’s extreme too. There’s the hottest, the coldest,
the deepest, the oldest. All of that is in The Extreme Life of the Sea. It took us a long time to find a place where
we could do that shot without alarming a lot of people. The book tries to paint the story
of the life of the sea and I want to tell you a few stories to give you an idea of what
that’s like, and the power of the narrative and the science combined, because I really
do think that there’s a huge future in telling science and environmental stories. The main
point is that you really do not care about the plot of a story of a movie until you care
about the characters and these are the characters. For example, sailfish, some of the fastest
fish in the ocean. They can swim at 40 miles an hour but they also have to eat at 40 miles
an hour, like stopping for a cup of coffee without stopping. At 40 miles an hour, the
sailfish boom through their baitfish. They are slapping the baitfish with their bill.
They have 1/50th of a second between smacking a fish with the bill, turning and eating it.
In that 1/50th of a second, they have a problem because their eyes don’t work very well and
their brains don’t work very well at cold sea water temperatures. So, Barbara Block
at the Hopkins Marine Station has discovered that sailfish have heaters behind their eyeballs
to keep their retinas warm and they have heaters on their optic lobes to keep their brains
warm, in order to be able to see fast enough to eat at this speed that they have. You can
also take people to places in a book that are really difficult to get to. This is the
bottom of the Antarctic Sea. It looks clear because the water is very clear. The top there
is not clouds, it’s ice. This water is -2 degrees centigrade, colder than water usually
freezes but it’s salt water. Ice still forms every once in awhile though and what you see
here are ice crystals that are forming on the bottom of the ocean and then growing up,
almost as living things but they’re ice crystals. They are ice fans. And sometimes, they actually
entomb the animals on the bottom, like the starfish. But, it’s worse if you’re a regular
fish because your blood is less salty than sea water and it’s going to freeze before
anything else. So, ice fish, the ones that live in the Antarctic, have evolved a protein
called ice protein that floats around in their blood and it attacks small ice crystals if
they should ever form in the bloodstream, and those proteins coat the ice crystals and
they keep them from growing and they keep them from killing the fish. Now, that’s very
useful to fish but it’s also incredibly useful to us for a really important, incredibly society
driven problem that we all face, almost everyday, and that’s our ice cream. Because our ice
cream is going to get big ice crystals in it, especially if it’s low fat ice cream,
and so, enterprising marine biologists and chemists have devised a way to take the genes
of the Atlantic eelpout, make the ice proteins from those genes in yeast, put a tiny little
bit in the ice cream and it keeps the ice cream crystals from forming. That’s why it
can still be slow-churned, low fat and not have big ice crystals in it. You’ll get used
to that in a little while. It took me about 6 months to go back and eat that again. Other
places in the ocean are incredibly different. The deep is dark. It’s very, very empty of
food generally and the fish we see there are incredible machines for eating. This is the
stoplight loosejaw. It can eat a fish bigger than itself, but it also has two other adaptations
that are really rare. Most of the light in the deep sea is bio luminescent; it’s blue
and green. These sneak. They have red search lights that beam out of their cheek bones.
You can see them there. This is an artistic rendering but you can see them there. They
also have retinas and eyes that have mutations on the rhodopsins that let them see red. They
are the only fish with red light. They are the only fish that can see red light and that’s
how they move around the bottom of the ocean feeding. All these stories combine some drama,
often, and a lot of science, and the purpose of that was to combine those together in a
narrative that lets us, not just explain things to people, but entertain people with the science
that’s there. Hopkins has been operating for over 100 years. We have a group of undergraduates.
We have a group of graduate students. We have a group of faculty that’s some of the best
people in the marine science in the entire world. This is some of them. Basically, in
the laboratory at Hopkins because we can get them out into the field to see what’s there.
The opportunity to do that is an opportunity to understand the ocean world, to do research
in it and what we’re hoping to do with this project of combining novelists and scientists
is also to teach students and to let students communicate what they know out into the rest
of the world. Thank you.

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