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09 May 2018

Intelligent Design???

In Douglas Adams’ radio series (The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy), originally from the 1970s, there is a character called Slartibartfast, whose task it is to design planets. We don’t need to go into detail here, suffice it to say that one of his proudest achievements is the coast of Norway, an intricate design with kilometre after kilometre of complicated fjords, giving it, in his view, a lovely baroque feel. His next task was to have been to redesign Africa - which he intended to do in a similar, fjord-heavy style. Sadly - for him - the management of the Universe decided against proceeding with that, as Earth was scheduled for destruction. That baroque feel is certainly more weighted towards the aesthetic than the practical, although, of course, it has proven highly useful as a place to hide redundant oil tankers during periods of over capacity.

Anyway, it sometimes seems to me that some kind of similarly perverse mind must have been at work when the big bang sent Earth and other planets spinning off into their orbits. Why, otherwise, would major resource deposits be placed almost so deliberately in inconvenient locations? Oil in the desolation of the Saudi desert or thousands of metres under the short-tempered waves of the North Sea; iron ore in the heat and dust of the Pilbara in Western Australia, for example (although I guess Lang Hancock was delighted so much of it was in one place).

And it doesn’t get a great deal easier when we look at the base metals more generally relevant to this column. The Atacama desert is the driest place on earth, stuck on a plateau up in the high Andes; the mining in the Congo may be easier, but the political landscape - in many ways still, at over a hundred years distance, owing a lot of its problems to the exploitation started by Leopold II - creates its own problems for miners extracting the resources.

I remember first arriving at Norilsk, where under the ground is one of the richest poly-metallic orebodies in the world. I knew Siberia was cold - I’d seen (and felt)  that elsewhere; I knew the ground would be rock-hard and covered with snow and ice. But that was just the beginning of it. Any form of transport has to function at temperatures way below zero; we may think our road network suffers from frost - up there, it’s pretty impossible to maintain a road as anything more than a pot-holed track, and yet men, machines, provisions and ore have to move freely around between town and mines and smelters and port. Then when anything gets to the port, there’s a limited shipping season. The thaw in Central Siberia creates a flow of melt water through the river estuary around the port of Dudinka which is so heavy that most of the port equipment (including the giant loading cranes) has to be dismantled every spring and moved to higher ground until the flood subsides; then it all has to be rebuilt to get the exports going again. There is no alternative of road or rail transport, for the simple reason that there is no road or rail connection to the rest of the country. If you want to go up there, you fly, into an airport fairly frequently troubled by high winds, causing flights to divert. 

The mines themselves at Norilsk are impressive; a kilometre and a half below the arctic tundra, they are equipped with modern machinery and the ore extraction seems to run smoothly. It wasn’t always thus; those mines started as a slave labour project in the Stalin era. (Oh! Happy 200th birthday, Karl Marx; I doubt if the shades of the countless thousands who were sent up to those mines to die by those using your name in their creed will be joining your celebrations, though.)  

Then we could also look in more detail at the Congo, vital now with its major deposits of not only copper but also one of the metals of the moment, cobalt. Or the almost endless political squabbles at Bougainville, or the difficulties in Mongolia, or the next new big thing - possibly - in Afghanistan. It really does look as if Slartibartfast was sitting up there in his office in the Universe, colouring pencils in hand, dead set on making life difficult for the earthlings. 

Or we could look at the incidence of elements in a different, more scientific way. A while back, I was lent a book by Anthony Lipmann, a fellow writer on this site. I put it to one side, and almost forgot it. Then, last week, I picked it up and started reading. It’s called “The Disappearing Spoon”, by Sam Kean, and is an exploration of the part played in human history by the natural elements. It’s entertainingly written, and, importantly for me, it’s aimed not purely at degree-level physicists and chemists; I now have at least a rudimentary grasp of why the periodic table looks as it does, and what the groupings signify - something my science teachers signally failed to achieve al those years ago. I haven’t finished it yet, and will write more fully when I have, but the suggestions Kean gives about the localisation of elements are probably a great deal more convincing than Slartibartfast and his coloured crayons.

'The Disappearing Spoon', by Sam Kean, is published in paperback by Black Swan.            

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