Not words I ever expected to be writing, but they did a grand job of serialising my new book, Ten Million Aliens, giving it a seriously decent show over three days. Naturally, they picked the dramatic bits involving close encounters with lions, elephants and crocodiles.
Fair enough, but in the course of writing the book I actually found some of the most extreme drama among the invertebrates, and they make up a good half of the book. The colossal squid has enough drama all on its own. I also wrote about a meeting with the quite staggering blue morpho butterfly. And the way slugs have sex –well, that had them all gasping at the Cheltenham Literature Festival last week.
But perhaps the best moment in the course of putting this recklessly ambitious book together came when I started to research the phylum of Tardigrades, wondering what the hell I could possibly find that might be even remotely interesting.
They’re microscopic and ubiquitous and fond of moss. They can deal with the tropics and the poles. They can cope at altitudes of 20,000 feet and at oceanic depths of 13,000 feet. And here’s something truly odd: you can’t kill ‘em.
Boiling is nothing to them: they can survive temperatures of 150 degrees. You can freeze them close to absolute zero and they won’t die. They can survive 1,000 times more radiation than us humans. And you can send them into a low earth orbit and guess what? They won’t die.
If conditions get a bit difficult they can just shut down. They become flakes of almost nothing; it’s been called the instant coffee phase and it can last ten years. But give them a droplet of water and they’re off again, doing what they do best. Surviving, becoming ancestors.