Karl Banse, an oceanographer and biologist, is one of the most esteemed scientists in the world. He's written on everything from the use of satellites to detect phytoplankton concentrations to the transport of carbon into the deep oceans. But, perhaps his most overlooked research is his seminal paper on mermaids.
Craig McClain, the Assistant Director of Science for the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center, discusses Banse's study—"Mermaids: Their Biology, Culture, and Demise"—at the Deep Sea News blog. The mermaid paper, based on a lecture, and written with tongue planted firmly in cheek, was published in the journal Limnology and Oceanography. "Rumors in the oceanographic back circles is that the lecture and subsequent publication were met with, ahem, raised eyebrows," writes McClain. "After all, the discussion of the science of a fictitious creature is not proper for either a serious scientific conference or publication."
Some excerpts from Banse's paper:
In considering the culture of mermaids, two facts of life in the marine realm—the lack of fire (hence, no pottery or metallurgy) and the absence of fibers suitable for basketry, clothing, or ropes—must be considered. Thus, in spite of the propitious anatomical base of hands and large brains, the only development possible for mermaids was an analog to a very early human stone-age culture. Clearly, though, the physical want did not preclude a relatively advanced socio-political structure…Therefore, [they] must not be thought of as mere hunters and gatherers, but as farmers cultivating shellfish and seagrasses, with the organizational and political stability needed for allocating plots and enforcing the assignments.
I hypothesize that the cause [of their extinction] was the increase of mechanized fishing, which, outside the northern temperate waters, was often preceded by fishing with dynamite. The resulting removal of planktivorous visual predators (principally finfishes) shifted the ecological balance of open waters toward invertebrate predators, including jellyfish. Because mermaids had thin skin and no access to clothing, they were helpless, especially at night, against the stings of jellyfish.
"In all seriousness, why would a serious scientist publish a paper about mermaids and another scientist discuss it on a
serious semi-serious respectable marine science blog?," asks McClain. "I love this paper simply because demonstrates the nerdy playfulness of scientists. In my career, I have seen both scientists and the public criticize scientists for having 'fun.' I for one went into science to have fun and if my Ph.D. gives me the skills to calculate the urine production of a Godzilla then I will wear that nerd badge with glee."
[Source: Deep Sea News]