Originally published in French as Plancton, aux origines du vivant, this is a big book on a tiny subject. A microscopic subject, in fact. Or mostly so:
It is not easy to collect and study a drifting ecosystem consisting of a vast multitude of organisms ranging in size from less than 1 micron to tens of meters, over 10-million-fold difference. The smallest beings are viruses, and then bacteria and archaea. The largest are threadlike colonial cnidarians (siphonophores such as Praya dubia) that can reach more than 50 meters when extending their fishing filaments. (Introduction, pg. 16)
Nothing unites these organisms except the way they drift on the ocean’s currents: “plankton” is from the same Greek root as “planet”, which is literally a wandering star. And if there is life on another planet or one of its moons, it may be no stranger than some of the organisms here. And may be less so. The faintly dizzying smell of ink that rose from the pages of the copy I looked at went well with the phantasmagoric colours and shapes on those pages. Some are beautiful, some are grotesque, all remind me of a line from Aquinas: Unus philosophus fuit triginta annis in solitudine, ut cognosceret naturam apis – “One philosopher was thirty years in the wilderness that he might know the nature of a bee” (Expositio in Symbolum Apostolorum, 1273).
The philosopher at work here is the French marine biologist and planktonologist Christian Sardet, creator of the Plankton Chronicles project and a worthy heir to Jacques Cousteau, who sailed around the world to capture images of macroscopic life like whales, dolphins and squid. Sardet sails around the world to capture the microscopic.
In this, he’s also a worthy heir to Ernst Haeckel, the German biologist who first popularized the beauty of microscopic marine life in books like Kunstformen der Natur (1904), or “Artforms of Nature”. His books truly were art, because he illustrated rather than photographed his subjects, like the “siliceous skeletons of polycystine radiolarians” on page 85, which are reproduced from Kunstformen.
Something is lost in a photograph, but the door of technology can’t be closed now and some images could only be captured by a photograph, like the instant in which a misleadingly named predator meets its next meal on page 166:
The naked pteropod Clione limacia, or “sea-angel”, is a torpedo-like creature a few centimeters long. Furiously flapping its fins, it speeds through the water hunting its favorite prey, the coil-shelled thecosome pteropod Limacia helicina (lower left corner). On contact, Clione immediately ejects six buccal cones, grabs the prey, then eats it slowly with its raspy tongue. Clione roam the cold polar waters where they can reach high densities comparable to the tiny shrimp that constitute krill. Sea angels are themselves a major food for marine animals.
The photograph, “taken by Alexander Semanov in the White Sea” (off Russia), looks like a Lovecraftian deity descending on a Lovecraftian demon. Velella, a beautiful blue cnidarian that floats on the surface, propelled by the wind, is more like something from Clark Ashton Smith. There’s a photograph of a specimen of Velella about to be eaten, with gourmet-like delicacy, by a giant sun-fish.
Lovecraft and Smith would have enjoyed not just the images in this book, but the language too. The colours and shapes are phantasmagoric and so are the scientific names: from Asterionellopsis to Xystonella, from Phaeodactylum to Meganictyphanes. But the terminology is complex because it has to be and this is actually very clear writing:
These three spumellarian polycystines measure between 50 and 100 microns. To capture microscopic prey, they use membranous and cytoplasmic extensions, a peduncle called an axopode, and shorter extensions called rhizopodes that cover their entire surface. (pg. 79)
Christian Sardet translated this book himself from French with Dana Sardet and I’d like to sample it in the original. But Georgian would be even better: plankton should be written about in a strange language and beautiful alphabet. Of course, French and English are strange from the perspective of Georgian, but I don’t think the Roman alphabet could ever look beautiful to a Georgian. It’s functional and perhaps it’s good to have that contrast with the phantasmagoric.
If it is a contrast. Everything here is functional, no matter how strange or beautiful it seems:
Ctenophores owe their name to the Greek word ctene, referring to the minuscule combs comprised of thousands of fused cilia, arranged in eight rows on the gelatinous surface. The cilia of these comb plates are made of the same microtubular elements as those present in human cells. A simple nervous system controls the pulsating movement of the comb plates that act like tiny prisms, diffracting light in rainbow colors. (pg. 98)
No matter how remote ctenophores, diatoms, cephalopods, nudibranchs, tintinnids, chaetognaths and doliolids seem from humans, we have a common ancestor with them. And vertebrates are part of the plankton: larval fish drift there, so we were once part of it too. We mirror the world and the world mirrors us. But some parts of the mirror are more beautiful to look at than others and the world of plankton is certainly one of them.