Condoms, Microphones and The Death of Death

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Condoms on microphones, the Yangtze river dolphin, Douglas Adams, audiobooks & wondering what archaeologists in the future will think of this era.

Poker Machines in the Future
Measuring 5.6 on the richter scale, 1989 in Newcastle introduced many people to the idea that an earthquake was even possible on the East Coast of Australia. It was certainly news to my brain, which had instantly attributed the sudden shifting of the houses walls, to the neighbours next door, who who had been reversing a caravan into their driveway a short while ago. Rushing outside of that previously stable house, enabled the sight of everyone else on the street rushing outside of their previously stable houses. And the radio revealed this to be a Newcastle wide phenomenon, an actual earthquake, with all the fear and panic it brings. A few suburbs away, The Newcastle Workers club, a den of bad carpets, bad music and poker machines, was apparently the worst hit building, with many feared dead. In the end, the earthquake claimed 13 lives, and over 50,000 damaged buildings. Interestingly a US academic claimed in early 2007 that the Newcastle earthquake was probably set off by stress changes in the earth’s crust, after two centuries of coal mining. And the poker machines were not long without a home.

Douglas Adams @ The Newcastle Worker’s Club 1999
douglasadams
(the above photo is from one of Douglas’s many speaking engagements elsewhere )

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is the main way people have encountered the absurd and deadly sharp wit of Douglas Adams. Like most absurd science fiction, his work also serves to interrogate the present, gently reminding us just how strange our behaviours and societal habits actually are. In conversation with Robyn Williams ( ABC’s champion science reporter ), and charming all at the revamped Workers Club, it became clear that the science fiction of Adams was built upon mountains of scientific reading, an incredibly broad knowledge of the sciences, and a relentlessly curious brain. And something about being a very, very funny man. When he died in 2001, Douglas Adams left behind a rich collection of fiction, and only one work of non-fiction, a meditation on death, or rather the ‘death of death’, a book exploring the threatened extinctions of many species.

Last Chance to See
last chancePublished in 1990, and co-authored by Mark Carwardine, this is a book that details the exploits of Douglas and Mark ( a zoologist ), as they travel the globe attempting to witness actual living examples – in the wild – of some of the world’s most prominent endangered species. Along the way, we learn about what makes each of those species unique, filtered by Adam’s eye for the absurd, and discover the factors contributing to the disappearance of each species. A kind of comedic thriller whodunnit – where humans are always the bad guys. The book is a great jolting reminder of the biodiversity that exists beyond our urban centres, and the escalating threats our footprints are placing on species everywhere. Threatened species I remembered most from the book was the Yangtze river dolphin, because of the BBC audio recorder’s technique for trying to record that dolphin – placing a condom over a microphone, thereby allowing the recording of underwater sounds. As it turns out, there’s an audiobook torrent for this floating around online, read by Douglas himself, the storytelling humour amplified even more by his rich, comedic delivery. And supposedly, a follow-up TV series is due in 2008. This will unfortunately feature no new footage of the Yangtze river dolphin, as in August this year, this species was declared to be extinct.

Distinctly Extinct
And so, the Yangtze river dolphin can die no more, a fate that happens to many species over time. What disturbs in 2007 thought, is the rate at which species are being wiped out, forever. Archaeologists and biological historians point to five eras of mass extinctions during the earth’s history, and many scientists argue that the current rate of extinctions sees us on the cusp of a sixth era of mass extinction. Time will tell.

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