Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Teaching a cryptoendolith to talk

Of the late Imre Friedmann, an extreme microbiologist, it is reported:
as a student of seaweed, he had the “outlandish” idea that he might find single-celled versions of seaweed in the desert; and he did indeed find, under the limestone surface of the Negev, a greenish layer like a copper compound that turned out to be algae, alive...Friedmann himself always felt a peculiar tenderness for his cryptoendoliths: “always hungry, always too cold, in this grey zone”. “In human terms”, he said, “you could compare them to the most miserably living generations of pariahs in India. They are born, they live, and they die in the gutter.”
Long before corals the first reef building organisms were probably stromatolites. I'd guess Friedmann had an interest in these too. Certainly his work showed that dissection isn't necessarily murder, and that Roger Caillois, author of The Writing of Stones, was right to say research and poetry can go together: "I want the irrational to be continuously overdetermined, like the structure of coral; it must combine into one single system everything that until now has been systematically excluded by a mode of reason that is still incomplete" (credit to Marina Warner for bringing this to attention in her contribution to the Passionate Natures panel Landscape and Story).

Friedmann spent 17 seasons in Antarctica and also studied a lake in the Licancabur volcano in the Andes (pictured below). At around 6,014 metres this is amongst the highest and the least explored lakes on Earth, making it a "unique analog to ancient Martian lakes" where Friedman thought life on Earth may have originated.
Photo credit Andrew N. Hock, Dr. Greg Kovacs


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