Eight members of Burnham U3A made the pilgrimage to the home of British science, the Royal Institution, on 10th October to hear three lectures, arranged especially for U3A members.
The first lecture was brilliant. Professor Jon Copley is the first British person to travel more than 5 Km deep into the ocean. He studies hydrothermal vents, underwater volcanic geysers spewing out chemicals from the Earth’s interior at temperatures higher than that of molten lead. Around these vents bacteria have evolved which feed on the chemicals, and feeding on the bacteria are a myriad strange creatures: crabs, fish, shrimps, limpets, barnacles, sea anemones, snails, all previously unknown to science.
He showed us a shrimp which has no eyes, but can sense the presence of light because the vent glows very faintly and that is where the food is.
The strangest animal was the scaly foot snail, which reinforces its shell with iron and covers its fleshy foot with metal-rich plates, using the metals emitted by the vent.
The second lecture, on language disorders in children, I found disappointing. We learnt that failure to master one’s mother tongue by the age of five adversely affects one’s future academic success and one’s ability to sustain relationships, and frequently leads to a chaotic lifestyle. No surprises there, but we didn’t gain any insight into how such disorders occur or how such children might be helped.
The lecture entitled “Who Owns Outer Space” set before us a set of interesting ethical and legal problems, some of which have been dealt with and some of which remain under discussion.
The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 set down in writing that outer space is neutral territory where no weapons of mass destruction are allowed. There are international agreements about liability if a spacecraft gets damaged or causes damage to another.
Agreements about land rights and mining rights are work in progress, generally based on existing agreements about Antarctica and the High Seas and the deep ocean floor. Which brought us back to the first lecture, and the question of who can mine the minerals emitted by the deep hydrothermal vents in mid-ocean.