We'd like to take you on a fantastic journey to visit the creatures we call the Elders. We call them the Elders because a half a billion years ago they tripled the amount of oxygen in the air, which led to an explosion of life, which led to all of us. We call them the Elders, but you probably know them as plankton.
Now, Simone is a physicist, and I'm an inventor. A couple of years ago, I was giving a talk about an invention I made—it was a 3D microscope. And Simone was in the audience. He realized that my microscope could solve a big problem he was having. Which was, how to measure the movement of plankton in 3D fast enough so he could mathematically model their sensing and behavior. And I frankly needed an application for my microscope, so...
It was like peanut butter meets chocolate.
So we started working together, studying these amazing creatures. And then we were alarmed to discover something. And that's why we're here today. And I just want to do something with you. Now, please, just hold your breath for a second. Yes, literally hold your breath. This is the world without plankton. You see, plankton generate two-thirds of our oxygen using the sun. OK, now you can breathe, because they're still here. For now.
As many of you know, since 1950, the average surface temperature of the earth has increased by one degree Centigrade due to all the carbon dioxide we are pumping into the air. Now, while this temperature increase may not seem like a big deal to us, it is to plankton. Indirect measurements have shown that the global phytoplankton population may have decreased by as much as 40 percent between 1950 and 2010 because of climate change. And you see, this is a problem also because it's starving the fish that eat them. And about a billion people around the world depend on fish as their primary source of protein from animals.
So you see, this isn't just about breathing. No plankton means no fish. And that is a lot of food we will need to replace. There's something else that is interesting. The bodies of plankton's ancestors actually make up a for lot of the carbon we burn today. Which is kind of ironic, if you ask me. Because the plankton that are here today clean that carbon out of the air. But you see, they don't really hold a grudge.
The problem is they cannot keep up with the tremendous amount of carbon we are dumping into the air.
So what does all of this mean? Well, it means that our big carbon footprint is crushing the very creatures that sustain us. And yes, like Tom said, killing almost half of the creatures that allow us to breathe is a really big deal. So you're probably asking yourself: Why aren't we doing something about it? Our theory is that plankton are tiny, and it's really, really hard to care about something you cannot see. You see, there's a quote I really like in "The Little Prince" that goes, "What is essential is invisible to the eye." We really believe that if more people could come face to...cilia with plankton, there is a greater chance we could all rally together and save these creatures that are so important to life on our planet.
Exactly, Simone. So to do this, we're going to bring you scuba diving with plankton. But I just need to shrink you by a factor of 1000, to a scale where the diameter of a human hair is as big as my hand. And I happen to have invented a machine to do just that.
Anyone here remember "Fantastic Voyage" or "Inner space?" Yeah, yeah. Martin Short is one of my all-time favorite actors. And now this—this is just like that.
Indeed, yes. When I was a boy, I saw "Fantastic Voyage," and I really loved how I could travel through the bloodstream and see biology work on a cellular level. I've always been inspired by science fiction. As an inventor, I try and turn fantasy into reality. And I once invented this glove which let me travel and help people like you explore the virtual world. So now I've invented this machine to let us explore the microscopic world. It's not virtual, it's real. Just really, really tiny. It's based on the microscope that got Simone's attention. So, here's how it works. I have an image sensor like the kind in your cell phone, behind the lens. And then I have a little tray of plankton water like you might find from a river or my fish tank, which I never change the water on.
Because I love plankton.
And underneath I have a light, an LED, which is going to cast shadows of the plankton on the image sensor. And now this silver thing is an XY plotter, so I can move the image sensor to follow the plankton as they swim. Now comes the fantasy part.
I put a tilt sensor on this helmet so I can control the microscope with my head. And now let's look at the video from this image sensor. These are all plankton. This is in that little tray, and with my head, I can move the microscope. So now we're ready to go scuba diving with plankton. My head will be the navigator, and Simone will be our tour guide.
So welcome all to the wonderful world of life in a drop of water. Actually, as you can see, with this instrument, we are not at all limited to a single drop. Alright, let's find something. The little creatures you see in the center of your screen, they are called rotifer. They are the garbage collectors of our waters. They break down organic matter and allow it to be reclaimed by the environment. Now, you know, nature is an amazing recycler. Structures are continuously built, they are decomposed and recycled, and all of that is powered by solar energy. But just think. Think about what will happen if, you know, our garbage collectors didn't come anymore, if they disappeared. Something else? Let's look for something else.
Oh, look at that. You see the big ice-cream-cone-shaped things? Those are called Stentor, those are amazing creatures. You know, they are big, but they are a single cell. You remember the rotifer we just met? That's about half a millimeter, it's about 1,000 cells—it's typically 15 for the brain, 15 for the stomach and you know, about the same for reproduction, which is kind of the right mix, if you ask me.
But a Stentor is only a single cell. And it's able to sense and react to its environment. You see, it will swim forward when it's happy; it will swim backward when it's trying to get away from something like, you know, a toxic chemical. With our friends in the Center for Cellular Construction and the help of the National Science Foundation, we are using Stentor to sense the presence of contamination in food and water, which I think is really cool. Alright, last one. So the dots that you see there that are, let's say, behind everything, they're algae. They are the creatures that provide the majority of oxygen in the air. They convert solar light and carbon dioxide into the oxygen that is filling your lungs right now. So you see, we all got algae breath.
You know, there's something interesting. About a billion years ago, ancient plants got their photosynthesis capability by incorporating tiny, tiny plankton into their cells. That's exactly like us putting solar panels on top of our roofs. So you see, the microscopic world is even more amazing than science fiction.
Oh, indeed. So now you've seen how vital plankton are to our lives and how much we need them. If we kill the plankton, we will die of asphyxiation or starvation, take your pick.
Oh, yes, I know it's sad, yes.
In the game of plankton, you win or you die.
Now, what amazes me is, we have known about global warming for over a century. Ever since the Swedish scientist, Arrhenius, calculated the effect of burning fossil fuel on the earth's temperature. We've known about this for a long time, but it's not too late if we act now. Yes, yes, I know, I know, our world is based on fossil fuels, but we can adjust our society to run on renewable energy from the Sun to create a more sustainable and secure future. That's good for the little creatures here, the plankton, and that good for us—here's why. The three greatest concerns of people all around the globe typically are jobs, violence and health. A job means food and shelter. Look at these creatures, they're swimming around, they're looking for a place to eat and reproduce. If a single cell is programmed to do that, it's no surprise that 30 trillion cells have the same agenda. Violence. Dependence on fossil fuels makes a country vulnerable. Which leads to conflicts all around the oil resources. Solar energy, on the other hand, is distributed around the whole globe, and no one can blockade the sun.
And then, finally, health. Fossil fuels are like a global cigarette. And in my opinion, coal is like an unfiltered type. Now, just like smoking, the best time to quit is when?
Now! Not when you get lung cancer. Now I know if you look around, some people may abandon facts and reason. Only until suffering—
Yes, they will abandon facts and reason. But suffering will eventually and inevitably force change. But let's instead use our neocortex, our new brain, to save the Elders, some of the oldest creatures on the earth. And let's apply science to harness the energy that has fueled the Elders for millions of years—the sun.