Day 4: The Practicality of Beauty

June 25, 2010 in day#4 by Isabel Gold

Every system, from that of the gnat hovering over your left eyelid to that of the giraffe towering over unsuspecting trees, can and will be broken down into the worldwide need for survival. We were introduced to this idea yesterday, with Alan Turing’s simple formula of morphogenesis, and we continued to grasp this concept today, when we dove into the beautiful, yet technical world of optics. The auditorium glowed in the presentation’s brilliantly colored creatures.

“Why?”

Why? Why do these animals, these things of beauty happen to be so beautiful? I was reluctant to admit it, but the answer was obvious; it was simple, far too simple for anyone to blurt it out: survival.

The peacock flounder does not don intricate spots for boasting privileges. It uses camouflage to hide from predators (and, perhaps, to eat those unaware sand-skimmers). An actual peacock’s feathers, although stunning to see, aid the hopeful males towards their act of courtship.

Deep sea-dwellers use bioluminescence to lure in prey or to confuse it, not for our constant sounds of awe. My absolute favorite, the comb jellyfish, is often transparent in all but its brilliant teeth to catch its prey.

A perfect example of bioluminescence, the vampire squid (Vampyroteuthis infernalis – translated as “vampire squid from hell”) is one of those disturbingly beautiful cephalopods that haunt the deep. Bioluminescent bacteria dangle from its tentacles as sensory filaments, uncannily resembling its own eyes. When predators come too close, the squid can activate the luminescent glow, confuse the hungry enemy, and move away just a few feet into safety. When prey knock into the squid’s filaments, it is able to swoop and consume the meal. The squid needs nothing more: it is perpetually safe and full.

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Humans are not exempt from this collective desire, this collective need to survive -but if for just one more day.

The Fowler Museum’s possession and display of Sir Henry Wellcome, a pharmacist’s collection of 30,000 odd medical artifacts that could pass as art only enforces this fact more. We gaped at a reproduction of the king of  the Yoruba people in Nigeria’s hand-beaded crown, delicately adorned with an elephant.

“Oh, the king used to put medicinal herbs in the crown to protect his head – they  thought that the head was the source of intelligence and the soul.”

Others pointed at a terrifying mask that had both tusks, antlers, sharp teeth, and human features.

“This fifty pound mask is meant to intimidate the enemy and show strength.” And to preserve the safety of their people.

Forget beauty for the sake of beauty.

Food, safety, and mates. These are the true necessities of life.

Another strange cousin of the jellyfish! http://www.nytimes.com/2005/07/12/science/12red.html

Fireflies use their bioluminescence to communicate! (mostly tales of love) http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/30/science/30firefly.html?pagewanted=all