Thursday, March 09, 2006

(156) Another statistical method of detecting a monster

Jeremy Stafford-Deitsch had made a mark in the world of marine biology. In mid 1998 I spoke with him about the possibility of following up the story told by Sean Ingham concerning his encounter with the giant octopus.
Arthur C. Clarke had suggested this but nobody had yet taken it up.

Jeremy made me aware of the formidable pressure at depths of over a thousand metres, and said that it might well necessitate us designing and constructing our own camera.

To show just how difficult it is to film down there, he handed me a recent copy of National Geographic. He was not a subscriber but had bought this one from a newsagents, attracted by an article on sharks.
It contained a feature on the salvage of a Mediterranean shipwreck at a depth of six hundred metres. Remote-controlled vehicles were being deployed from a mother ship.
The cost of it all looked prohibitive.

But when I skipped through the rest of the magazine I noted a photograph in the inside back cover of Emory Kristof operating a Rope-Cam.
This was a newly devised camera, the product of twenty years research and development, which could be dangled over the side of a boat to take shots thousands of feet down.

The very magazine I was proffered to illustrate the problems, also contained their solution.

I contacted Kristof and on November 28th 1998, I flew to Washington, D.C. to discuss hiring him and the cameras for my quest. This eventually came about and we were to spend the month of August 1999 attempting (unsuccessfully) to locate and film the giant octopus just off the Bermuda coast.

I flew out on Continental flight 4421 and back the next day on CO 4422.
On the way out I had, as ever, preferred the option of an aisle seat to one by the window, and was allocated 47D.

As the descent into Washington, D.C. was announced over the intercom I glanced at the gentleman seated next to me. I had previously noted that he had been reading that day’s edition of The Economist but only then did I note that he had it open at the section on Science and Technology between pages 136 to 137.

On page 137 there was an article entitled Statistics Myths, monsters and maths

The piece was about how Dr C. Paxton of the Animal Behaviour Research Group at Oxford University had applied a statistical technique invented by R. Fisher in 1943, and now widely used by geologists and ecologists to estimate the diversity of populations (of, say, fossils or beetles).

The technique allows statisticians to make guesses about the size and make-up of a population based upon only a small sample:

Over the years, the prospect of discovering a sea monster unknown to science has prompted countless searches by explorers, adventurers and marine biologists, armed to the teeth with high-tech equipment. The latest search for unknown beasties… is rather more unusual. Dr Paxton has eschewed sonar detectors, underwater cameras and robot submarines in favour of an entirely different method of detection: statistics.

Statistics!?
Well, the coincidences concerning giant octopuses that I had encountered might just have had something to do with my believing in the prospect of my finding one.

Dr Paxton calculated that there were still forty-seven remaining undetected species of saltwater animals of two metres or more in length.

At the bottom of the page was the famous picture, also in Arthur C. Clarke’s book Chronicles of the Strange and Mysterious, of the kraken attacking a ship.

It may be seen above.

There was the caption "Only another 46 to go."

My weekend jaunt to America had been arranged at least six weeks in advance.

At 4.05 p.m. on November 29th 1998, whilst I was in America, the 1955 film It Came From Beneath The Sea was broadcast on British TV’s Channel 4.
It concerns a submarine encountering a gigantic octopus which trails the vessel back to San Francisco and brings terror to the community.

R. (Bobby) Fischer was also born in 1943.

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