Every day, we’re inundated with new reports of scientific or technological achievement, for better or worse. A camera the size of a grain of rice? Sure. Telescopes powerful enough to detect signs of water on a planet millions of miles away? Yeah, baby! Software that can digitally recreate not only video but also audio to alter our perception of reality? Maybe not our first choice of uses, but OK. Genetic tools that allow designer animals, even children? Umm …
Between the news of scientific advancements and the plots of science fiction films, books and TV, it sometimes seems there’s no limit to what we understand; nothing is surprising. Time travel? Invisibility? Shrinking to microscopic size? Even if it’s not real — yet — it’s certainly been fodder for pop culture in our collective imagination.
And then, every so often, something rudimentary can mystify even our greatest scientific minds.
The newest exhibit at the Paris Zoological Park is thrilling in its simplicity and its complexity.
“The blob” — dubbed for the iconic 1950s sci-fi film of the same name — is a single-celled marvel.
It’s not animal. Nor vegetable. Nor even, we guess, mineral. It’s just the blob, defying science in ways that are at once amazing, exciting and frightening.
Officially called Physarum polycephalum — that’s Latin for “many-headed slime” — the bright yellow blob has been classified as a type of slime mold; similar to, but not quite, a fungus.
The blob, according to news reports from Reuters and The Washington Post, has more than 700 sexes. It does not have limbs, but can move. It has no brain, eyes, mouth or stomach — but can navigate a maze to find food or avoid hazards, and can pass on that learning. It can merge with another blob and reattach its own parts if split or cut. It may be a billion years old.
“The blob is really one of the most extraordinary things on Earth today, but it’s been here for millions of years, and we still don’t really know what it is,” said Bruno David, director of the French National Museum of Natural History, according to Reuters.
So what do scientists know? Well, its type of slime mold lives all over the world, but this specific species is found in forests in dark, moist vegetation, dung, wood and soil. It reproduces by releasing spores into the wind, which grow into new creatures under the right conditions. To eat, it inches toward its food, surrounds it, and secretes enzymes to digest it. Then it poops and moves on. Ah, science.
What we really find astounding is how much isn’t known about these amazing creatures. If they came from outer space, riding in on a meteorite, the world would be abuzz. It can grow to hundreds of centimeters in size — well shy of its cinematic cousin — but remains a single cell.
Think of how much we know about Elvis Presley, Princess Diana or any random Kardashian. By comparison, the amazing blob, long known about and studied vigorously by some of our best minds, remains a mystery in many ways. Perhaps unlocking those mysteries will someday prove the key to astounding advances in medicine, technology or other useful applications. It’s thrilling in its potential.
On the other hand, if this simple creature, found abundantly in forests throughout America and elsewhere, can so baffle modern science, what else don’t we even know that we don’t know? Frightening.
Thrilling, frightening and yet fun — that’s science in a nutshell.