Nature small, medium and large

A BBC nature programme a couple of weeks ago showed the remarkable nest of Britain’s smallest bird (if you don’t count the tail) – the long-tailed tit. It’s a beautifully made globular structure (though still heavily predated) of lichen and feathers, designed to expand as the brood grows because it’s woven from spider’s silk.

We had such a nest in the garden hedge, a nasty prickly Berberis, of our old house once, but this time I wondered how the birds found sufficient cobwebs for their gargantuan task. That reminds me of some forgotten quote about fairies weaving their clothes from cobwebs. I soon found out the answer, because as I sat here the other day one of these avian acrobats appeared in the top corner of the study window, clinging upside down to the rendering, and poked about in the corner. A few seconds later it triumphantly flourished a strand of spider-silk in its beak, and flew off to its loom. (Photo: Tony Hisgett)

One of those tiny wonders of nature. I shall have to avoid hacking the bushes about too much unless I happen to find where the nest is. But as I was looking in vain for that fairy-weaving quote, I found one that is more soberingly applicable to the current lockdown legislation, widely evaded by the rich and influential:

Laws are like cobwebs, which may catch small flies, but let wasps and hornets break through.

Jonathan Swift

At the medium scale, we braved those very laws last week by walking up Golden Cap, the highest sea cliff on the south coast, though soon likely to become rapidly lower through coastal erosion. Here’s a photo I took on our first ascent in 2008:

The fence is now slumping off the cliff edge at about the point I took the picture. It’s certainly humbling to see the power of the elements over such a short time.

The pundits, of course, blame sea-level rise due to global warming, somehow hinting that only going carbon-free will stop the feature disappearing in the next half-century. This is tosh – the sea level has been rising steadily since the end of the ice age, and in Britain the main factor is that Scotland is still rising after being released from the ice sheet, and southern England is sinking correspondingly, like the other end of the see-saw. But its days are certainly limited.


On the grand scale, we yesterday became witnesses to an unexpected astronomical event. I was slaving away removing tangled brambles from our Devon bank when I heard what sounded like a very loud clap of thunder in the east, followed a second or two later by something like a crackling fusillade of rifle-fire apparently in the west.

Since, although it was cloudy, no storm looked imminent (though I used the excuse to pack up work and have a cider) I surmised that there might have been a plane crash, or even another wartime bomb explosion like that in Exeter, 20 miles away, recently:

It did cross my mind, since there have been a few fireball sightings recently across the world, that a meteor was an outside possibility. But plane crashes are, sadly, a lot more common – as indeed are bombs, of which I heard two, courtesy of the IRA, when I lived in London.

Nevertheless the rare meteor is what it turned out to be, as the TV news later revealed. We had been privileged to experience a cosmic event. In Dorchester, 40 miles to our east, it sounded like this:

I must say to my ears it was both much louder, and more of a single boom, with a discrete “after echo.” My suspicion is that both variants were the result of local echoes of a single sonic boom as the thing broke up.

There is one video of the fireball itself, caught on a dashcam on the island of Jersey, a good hundred miles south from us. Don’t be fooled by the bright object at top right throughout (which is what many of the lazy media seem to have circled in their stills! They also say he is a taxi-driver, which he says is untrue!). That is a windscreen reflection. The meteor appears just left of centre about a second in, and appears to fade just as it passes behind a road sign, so we miss any signs of break-up:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jMwxK2z_jJw

Update 10.49: the video, raw footage from the dash-cam, has been taken down. I suspect the guy inadvertently gave exclusive use to ITV, and they’ve now ticked him off! You can still see it here. The sun’s on the left, so it appears to be travelling north towards the mainland.

Once more, there is an ironic connection with COVID folly, in that a couple of days ago Boris Johnson, denying the significance of the few cases of blood-clots associated with the Astra-Zeneca vaccine in Europe, said that we are three times more likely to die from a meteorite strike than from the vaccine. This, too, is tosh, as there is only one verified case of “strike by meteor,” in Alabama in 1954, and the victim was only injured. It is possible that a Siberian trapper or two was caught up in the Tunguska event in 1908, and archaeology is beginning to suggest the possibility that the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah had a similar cause c. 1700 BC – but those scarcely improve Johnson’s accuracy.

Now, in casual conversation, his words could have been intended as jocular fictional rhetoric. But Johnson was acting as a spokesman for science, and was quoted by the press as such. There is a real and increasingly measurable risk of dying from COVID vaccination, albeit small. Quantifying that danger is necessary for individuals to make their own risk assessment about being vaccinated. Johnson’s apparently precise, but completely false, “three times less likely than a meteorite strike,” seems designed to mislead the public into believing vaccination is risk-free, much like Bill Gates’s generic public lie that “vaccination is safe,” without any proper qualification.

I add it to my list of anti-scientific official statements, like the minister last week who, challenged on the science of not removing restrictions on outside meetings sooner, retreated to the last refuge of the incompetent: “Well, common sense suggests…” How would he know anything about common sense?

Now, I’m willing to grant that dying from vaccination is three times less likely than hearing a meteor. But if you live in Devon, Dorset or Somerset (total population nearly 3 million) that’s small comfort.

Back in the real world, though, nature continues to amaze us at all scales.

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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