It was my birthday on Friday, so I took the day off of work and headed to London for the Natural History Museum’s Whales: Beneath the Surface exhibition (open until February 2018). It’s a nice show, although rather smaller than I expected: £14 admission seems a bit steep in retrospect.

But what is there is fascinating. I was impressed by how much we know about whale behaviour (and the clever ways we found it out), and also by how much we don’t know. For instance, we don’t really understand to what extent whales are susceptible to the bends (decompression sickness). More than the behavioural stuff though, what I liked best were the individual bones on display of some of the larger whales: shoulder blades the size of a hang-glider, vertabrae like blocks of a classical Greek column. They are awesome, in the traditional sense of the word.

It took me a while to figure out why the complete skeletons on show1 didn’t look quite right. Unlike fish, whales don’t have any bones in their tail fin (the ‘fluke’): it’s made of cartilage. The effect is that their skeletons look unfinished, as if the designer got bored halfway through and shuffled off to do something else. All the action happens at the beginning and peters out after the ribcage.

Blue whale skeleton

The exhibition had me reflecting a bit on different forms of intellectual interest. As a young person I had no time for specifics. I was always interested more in abstractions and wanting to understand systems and fundamental theories—much rather a theoretical physicist than a cetologist, say. But the abstractions have rather hollowed out for me lately, while being the domain expert on a small class of real things looks rather more attractive. Spending your days trying so understand something like whales, so mysterious but also overwhelmingly physically there, seems very appealing to me now. I envy those people.2

I’ve had a copy of Phillip Hoare’s Leviathan or, The Whale sitting halfway down my to-read stack for about 3 years. I’ve bumped it to the top now.

  1. The exhibition has the skeleton of the Thames Whale and a less famous porpoise. Outside the exhibition, the main hall of the NHM now has an enormous blue whale skeleton hanging from the ceiling—a replacement for Dippy, the much-loved Diplodocus who has greeted visitors to the museum since 1979. Apparently Dippy is going on tour. ↩︎

  2. Let’s not neglect that the traditional aesthetics of cetology are extremely cool: brass instruments, woolly jumpers, and the terror of the deep. The very concept of whale fall sets my mind ringing. ↩︎

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© Tom Harris 2015–2018.

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