The ginger science alliance

It’s not often you get to see a redheaded comedian speak about the beauty of the universe, and pictures from the Hubble space telescope in particular, and even less often that the person in question isn’t me. So it was lovely to be in the audience tonight to see Rod Quantock at the Ian Potter Gallery in Federation Square do just that.

If you don’t know who Rod is then I can only assume you’re either under the age of 20, you have no interest in the Australian comedy scene, or both. He recently did a show titled “First Man Standing” and it’s not much of a stretch to imagine he was one of the first stand-up comedians, at least in the modern sense, in Australia. If you’re my age or older, you’ll probably remember him from The Big Gig, Australia: You’re Standing In It, or possibly (and I apologise in advance, Rod) the Cap’n Snooze advertisements of the eighties.

Now, Rod being Rod, he didn’t exactly stay on topic; his style may be best described as lovingly rambly. But it was a grand half hour that featured, among other things, a model of the history of the universe contructed using only four human beings, one of whom played a dinosaur. (That might have been me, but I swear it was all Rod’s idea.) One thing he did mention, however, when sketching out his plan for establishing equilibrium in the ecologically disastrous times ahead,  was that humans are made of 80% water, and, perhaps inspired by Rod and Dr Karl, I’m going to go off on a tangent about that.

Like just about all living things of which we’re aware, we are made largely of water. There’s a lot of fluid in our bodies: blood, lymph, saliva, bile…all mostly water. Our cells are full of it, with anything up to 90% of their mass accounted for by H2O. That varies, of course; you or I have a large though uncertain number of cells in our bodies (it’s in the millions of millions), and they come in about 200 different types.

Interestingly, fat cells have a hugely lower water content than other cells: they’re only about 14% water, which is less even than bone, which is about 22% (“dry as a bone”, indeed!). This explains why in adult humans, the actual percentage of water is around 55%-65%, with men at the top of the range and women at the bottom. This varies quite a bit depending on body shape, size, health, fitness and how much you’ve had to drink. (There’s a pretty good breakdown of all this in the Wikipedia article on body water.)

Now, water is obviously pretty exciting and important for all of us, and when I say us, I mean “living things”. The Earth is in what’s known as the “habitable zone”, the narrow band in which a planet orbiting a star can have water in all three states: vapor, liquid and solid. The habitable zone varies quite a lot, depending on the size and temperature of a star; for hotter stars the zone is further away, for cooler stars it’s closer. Over a star’s lifetime the habitable zone will change, but since stars have long lives, there’s no reason to suppose life won’t usually have time to kick off and develop into complex forms. You know: like us.

The nice thing about all this rambling is that next year is both the International Year of Astronomy (much as 2005 was the Einstein International Year of Phsyics), and the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species (not to mention the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin). Aside from Moby’s refrain that “we are all made of stars” (the elements heavier than Hydrogen – i.e. all of ’em – which are created via nuclear fusion in stars), physics and biology are, like all sciences, inextricably linked. It’s a bold time of exploration both inside and outside of ourselves; as Rod pointed out, not only will the successor to the Hubble space telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope, be launched, but we’re also learning more every year about genetics and also neurology. While I don’t think humans will run out of things to investigate any time soon, in the next decade or so we’re going to find out some very exciting stuff.

How sad, Rod pointed out, that we’ve managed this only at the precise time we’re all likely to die out…


  1. Ben says:

    Thanks Rod. I was certainly happy with your choice of raptor – it’s pretty hard to do a decent Stegosaurus impression without some basic props!

  2. Destructor says:

    I don’t think you’re a dinosaur, Ben- your ideas and attitudes are still relevant to the contemporary age as far as I am concerned.

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