December 9, 2013 | 3
The new impressively oblivious (or riotously self-mocking) logo that adorned a rocket carrying U.S. spy satellites is actually not a bad choice, as metaphors go.
The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) launched new secret spy—and scientific—satellites into orbit from California on Thursday via an Atlas 5 rocket [pdf]. All questionable enough given the ongoing revelations about the breadth of the National Security Agency’s (NSA) information gathering—at home and abroad. But this rocket packed an extra punch. It was emblazoned with a new logo, depicting a sinister-looking octopus perched atop Earth reaching its suckery arms around the globe. “Nothing is Beyond Our Reach,” it proclaims for the NROL-39 mission.
This branding echoed ominously the NSA-related scandals. But if one were to pick a mascot to represent such a broad-reaching project, the octopus is an excellent choice.
For one, the octopus is one of the slinkiest, crafty creatures out there (and not in the macramé sense). As an invertebrate, an octopus can squeeze an arm—or even its whole body—into some impossibly small and unlikely spaces. (If a nearby fish tank is easy enough, how about your instant messaging transcripts, recent cell phone records or Angela Merkel’s office?)
Unlike our arms, which are locked into hard joints and confined by bones, the octopus’s arms are muscular hydtrostats—the same material as our tongues. This means they can stretch and deform and squeeze while maintaining an overall volume. Need to quietly sneak out of a tank through the water outflow? No problem. Want to reach an arm into a tiny crack to get some food. Already done. Asked to crawl into your internet provider’s datacenter? Theoretically a snap.
These animals are also perhaps the stealthiest creatures, able to vanish into nearly any natural setting. This camouflaging ability, which can involve changing color, texture and luminosity in a matter of milliseconds, has frustrated researchers and predators and often proves deadly for the octopus’s desired lunch. But it would make them awfully good spies. If they lived on land, one could be sitting on your floor right now and you wouldn’t even know it. In fact, the U.S. military is already funding research to try to decode this camo—and replicate it for our purposes with nanotechnology.
Little seems out of the octopus’s mental reach, either. Shown to be the smartest invertebrates, octopuses can solve mazes, figure out how to open childproof pill bottles and can even use tools. Scientists have estimated their intelligence to rival that of some reasonable smart birds—which are no dullards even in the vertebrate world.
Finally, and perhaps most appropriately, octopuses have actually shown that no place is out of their reach, at least in the marine world. They have adapted to life in the warm, shallow tropics, the frigid Antarctic depths and even the weird world surrounding hydrothermal vents. Some species have perfected macro-evolution by editing their own RNA to survive better in supercold temperatures.
They just haven’t colonized space yet. But perhaps it is only a matter of time.
To learn more about the octopus’s powers, check out my new book Octopus! The Most Mysterious Creature In the Sea.
Illustration courtesy of Ivan Phillipsen