tom thinks

Lifespeed, 2001/09/07:08:45

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In the spring I found an onion in the back of the fridge that had started to sprout, so I planted it. It did pretty well, and last week the seed-pods started to open so I cut the top off and brought it inside, where I'm now collecting the seeds as it dries and they fall out. Each seed is black or dark, dark purple, shaped like a little rugby ball a couple of millimeters long.

The kids figure there's about fifty seeds in all, and I pointed out that in six generations that's about 40 trillion onions. So basically, this is an ultimatum to the world: pay me $31,415,927 dollars in small unmarked bills, or I will convert the entire terrestrial biomass to onions by 2007.

Why hasn't anyone thought of this before?

There are two time-scales involved in most biological activity: one relatively slow, the other amazingly fast. Biology is slow relative to human activities on short time-scales. "Watching the grass grow" is a euphemism for boredom because nothing much happens in hours or even days. But on time-scales of a few years or decades, biology has it hands down over technology. It took twenty years for Microsoft to get "a computer on every desktop and in every home," even if we take "every" to mean "more than half". In comparison, it took about two years to ge "a zebra mussel on every rock and in every stream" around the Great Lakes.

The speed of life is rarely visible because biological systems are ususally pretty well balanced by kindly old Mother Nature's program of everything trying to kill and eat everything else as rapidly as possible. Its only when a species gets introduced into a new environment that there's an opportunity to see how fast things can happen, although the speed of biological change is what keeps things in balance the rest of the time, too. The speed is always there, just not always obvious.

I've been reading a bit lately about the settlement of the American West, and it's one of those anomalous times when technology gave a group of humans almost unopposed access to a new habitat. The native population was small, widely dispersed and completely pre-industrial. They had lived in uneasy equilibrium with Europeans prior to the industrial revolution, adapting themselves well to completely novel technologies such as horses and firearms, but industry tipped the balance strongly in favor of the Eurpoeans, who expanded into the West in a matter of two or three generations, just like the zebra mussels have expanded into the Lakes.

The speed of that expansion is astonishing: within fifty years there were thriving European towns where there once had been wilderness and Indians. The buffalo were more-or-less wiped out, and anyone watching the grass grow would have noticed that it was no longer the same spieces of grass doing the growing.

That brief, strange time has deeply marked the American character to this day: Americans have a latent sense of the infinite possibilities open to you when technology puts biology on your side.
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