ex Oceano – Movement 2, the phytoplankton

Listen in on conversations between  composer Matthew Dewey and scientists Rob Johnson and Nick Roden as they open up the world of phytoplankton in order to inspire Matthew’s composition – in particular Movement 2 of the Symphony ex Oceano.

Composer-scientist Conversation 1: Robert Johnson

What am I trying to say here? -ancient, endurance, endlessness, fast and slow, life and death,   the beginning of all things.

Why is the scale important?  Scale is everything in the plankton. Being small allows you to directly access the world around you – no need to chew your food when you can just absorb it directly into you! – and being small means that the world you live in is thick and holds you up rather than you having to swim like a bigger animal does.

Is there an innocence that needs to be expressed? Yes.  The innocence of algae. They are just trying to photosynthesise and get on with it. Below I’ve expanded into a bit of a summary of what i think of when i imagine the life of an algae cell…

Small:  Phytoplankton are small but they are not the smallest. To be a miniature being drifting around in an endless sea may seem like a lonely and miserable existence. It is not. Being a small phytoplankton in the vast ocean comes with many challenges but also with wonderful benefits. They love being small. There’s always someone smaller. There are giants of the phytoplankton world – that often live fast and die young – and there are midgets – that endure for many lifetimes of their larger cousins. This scale is hard to comprehend, but it would be similar to having a cousin as tall as the Sydney Tower (>275m) while you’re as small as a pin and you’re all fighting for the same food and the same sunny position on Bondi beach! Not only is there a huge size spectrum but there’s no shortage of friends to hang out with. In a drop of seawater there are more individuals – 20 million individuals – all trying to get ahead of the other. Life is both simultaneously fast and sticky for plankton. They are constantly being buffeted and bombarded by new and exciting experiences and conditions that continuously stimulate their senses. They do not sleep; they’re always active. We experience night and day but for the phytoplankton, light levels change every second as they are turned, tipped, pulled, whirled, and zigged and zagged along as the water shunts them around the globe at what we might think is a breakneck pace. But, being so small means that the water they live in seems very sticky and the pace not quite so breakneck. Seawater to them is more like honey is to us. This stickiness helps them avoid being eaten and helps them to absorb nutrients. Somewhat like when you try to grab a beach ball in a swimming pool it evades you by staying ever so slightly out of reach, a similar thing happens when a shrimp or krill attempts to catch a little phytoplankton – they slip and move in the most fluid of ways. They are effectively bobbing along in a sea of molasses being flashed with strobe lights and chased by alien vs predator-like monsters trying to eat them – which they evade by simply relaxing and going with the flow. They take this hectic lifestyle all in their stride. They are adapted and can adapt rapidly. They reproduce faster than almost anything else in the sea (their entire population can reproduce itself in less than a week! Sometime within two days!!) and so natural selection (Yay for Darwin!) is always at work selecting only the individuals that are best suited to the conditions of that week. The plankton is an exhilarating and yet relaxed zone where life and death flash before your eyes in splendid ignorance for the ecosystem they support and the lives they make possible. I am awe struck by the flexibility, diversity, and resilience of our microscopic friends. From within this chaotic world of eat – be eaten – die – divide – they have single handedly produced the atmosphere we breath and allowed plants and animals to move onto land and evolve into trees and dinosaurs and then eventually us. The wonder of life! Wow! – how could we find science dull!  A truly incredible story!

Composer-scientist Conversation 2: Nick Roden

What am I trying to say here? It is difficult to have an emotional connection with something that you don’t directly experience/see every day. The best way I can describe it is this:   Have you ever looked through a telescope or a pair of binoculars at the stars or any of the planets? If you haven’t, go and do it. The absolute jaw dropping beauty, wonderment and sense of insignificance that this gives you is astounding. To think that all of those stars, galaxies and intricate nebulae were right above our heads, but they only revealed themselves to us after we changed our viewing perspective.   This may seem like a strange analogy, but I felt the same way when, instead of looking at the ocean, I looked down a microscope into the world of the micro organisms.

Why is the scale important?  Is the scale important here? I think yes and no. From an emotional perspective it’s not important that it’s “small”, I think it’s important because it forces us to realise that life and the universe play out on scales far different to the scale that we normally experience the world. Rob gave a fantastic description of the frantic nature of this life in the micro world. However, I’m also reminded of the carbon cycle (in which the plankton play a key part) and how this cycle also plays out on a grand and vastly different time scale to the world we see when looking down a microscope. Think of marine snow. The detritus left over by the frantic existence of plankton. It floats down from the surface layer into the deep, dark, quiet ocean. Drifting like snow into a seemingly hollow void. It too, is part of the carbon cycle and plays an important role in regulating the global climate and planetary health. When I see video footage of this, I’m reminded of what it must be like to travel through the vastness of space surrounded by distant stars as they drift by. The stars and galaxies themselves are involved in a grand cycle, of which we are a part.  A cycle that plays out in millions and billions of years. On this scale, I think of our daily lives on little planet Earth as akin to the planktonic life bustling around in that drop of seawater. It comes down to scale and perspective.   What I’m trying to say is that seeing life in this way is an alien experience, because we have evolved in a world that, up until now, has only required us to experience the world in very narrow terms. It puts me in my place. It reminds me that life is fragile and it reminds me that we have stumbled into an existence where we need to take care of the things we cannot “see”.

Is there an innocence that needs to be expressed? You asked if there is an innocence that needs to be expressed. I think there is, I think there is a sense of naivety too.