[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
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2020 Vision

The Living Sea

(Rehearsal Transcript)

First aired 19 June 1998

What is 2020 Vision?

Gillian Deacon introduces Robert J. Sawyer as a biologist in the Year 2020 who leads a team that has made a profound discovery.

Gillian: Dr. Sawyer, what is it that you have discovered?

Rob: Gill, you've heard the expression "The Living Sea."

Gillian: Sure. It was the title of a book by Jacques Cousteau, wasn't it?

Rob: Exactly. What we've discovered is that it isn't just a metaphor. It's literally true: taken as a whole, the water that covers 71% of our planet is one giant organism.

Gillian: That's a bit hard to swallow. After all, water is a pretty simple compound — just two hydrogens and an oxygen.

Rob: Distilled water is simple, yes. But seawater is enormously complex. We've known for decades that seawater and human blood plasma have highly similar chemical compositions. And, of course, sea water doesn't just contain salt, but also a great many other dissolved minerals. It's an extraordinarily complex liquid.

Gillian: And you're saying this liquid is alive?

Rob: Not just the liquid — but, in total, everything that's in it. Our blood doesn't just consist of plasma, after all; it also consists of cells and platelets. The fish, the plankton, the mollusks, the krill, the seaweed, the algae, the kelp — these are also parts of this vast world-spanning life form. Just as our body contains various specialized structures, so too does the living sea.

Gillian: I'll grant you that the sea is complex — but I'm still not sure why you say it's one living organism?

Rob: We've been using satellites and deep-sea probes to map ocean currents and the dispersal of mineral streamers throughout the water — and they're not random. They form patterns and interconnections, and they can move in ways that are contrary to what you'd expect simply based on wind patterns, the ocean-floor geography, and so on. The streamers of dissolved minerals — very diffuse, but still detectable — persist for very long periods; they seem to form the equivalent of a neural network, such as the ones that exist in our brains — but on a vastly larger, and vastly more complex, scale.

Gillian: You're saying the ocean isn't just alive, but it also thinks?

Rob: We don't know yet. But, remember, the ocean doesn't go through generations, the way we do. This is the same ocean that once surrounded the original supercontinent of Pangaea. This one lifeform has existed continuously for billions of years. Could consciousness have emerged in that time? Who knows? But I wouldn't rule out the possibility.

Gillian: Well, if the world ocean is conscious, do you suppose it's aware of us?

Rob: I don't know. It's a matter of scale; we are so incredibly puny compared to it, it may be impossible for it to detect us, or for us to ever communicate with it. Besides, given all the garbage we've dumped into it over the centuries, I'm not sure that it's a wise idea to let it know we're here.

Gillian: Why not?

Rob: I told you: the ocean can move itself; it wouldn't take much effort on its part, if it wanted to, to send giant waves washing over every coastal community on the planet — and since ninety percent of humanity lives in coastal communities, it could wipe almost all of us out.

Gillian: Sort of a modern day Noah's flood, eh?

Rob: Well, I wouldn't equate the ocean with God, but it is clearly this world's dominant life form. From space, there's not a single human-made object that's visible — but the ocean is clearly visible. In fact, given what we know now, we should probably stop calling this Planet Earth. It really is Planet Water.

Gillian: Dr. Sawyer, thank you for joining us.

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