Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Speaking of Science: Marine biology gave TV its most famous sponge

Speaking of Science
Talk nerdy to us

Tom Kenny, left, Stephen Hillenburg, Princess Charlene of Monaco, Karen Hillenburg and a guest at the 2017 Princess Grace Awards Gala Kick Off Event at Paramount Studios on Oct. 24, 2017, in Hollywood. The event featured a special tribute to Hillenberg, creator of "SpongeBob SquarePants." (Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for Princess Grace Foundation-USA)

On Nov. 26, Stephen Hillenburg, creator of the cartoon "SpongeBob SquarePants," died at 57 in his Los Angeles home. "SpongeBob," the fourth-longest-running animated show on U.S. television, stars a chipper ocean sponge, SpongeBob, with a snail for a pet and a sea star, named Patrick, for a best friend.

The sea floor was a familiar setting for Hillenburg — he taught marine biology at the Ocean Institute in Dana Point, Calif., before becoming an animator. Hillenburg's earliest stab at a talking sponge was a comic book character, Bob the Sponge, who exclaimed in the first panel: "You are about to embark on a journey into one of the most incredible ecosystems on this planet … the Intertidal Zone!" The 1989 comic failed to sell.

But transferred to TV, SpongeBob and his friends were a massive hit. Hillenburg, who cited explorer Jacques Cousteau as a major influence, used the popularity of the Nickelodeon cartoon to stump for marine conservation. In an interview with The Washington Post on a 2009 "SpongeBob" documentary, Hillenburg said: "People have to get together and [realize] how important our oceans are. One thing I'm hoping [will] come out of the documentary is the realization that the show came from something that's precious and that we need to appreciate it. It takes care of us. . . . Hopefully, if you watch 'SpongeBob,' you see plankton and crabs and starfish — and you'll [want to] take care of our oceans."

SpongeBob will live on even after the TV show, in its 12th season, runs its course. In 2011, San Francisco State University biologists spotted an unusual fleshy fungus in Borneo. The orange blob so resembled a sea sponge that the biologists decided to name it Spongiforma squarepantsii.

The editors of the journal Mycologia told the biologists that the name was "too frivolous," as San Francisco State University's Dennis Desjardin recounted to the Guardian in 2011. "We insisted that although the science might be their business, we could name it whatever we liked," he said. They prevailed, in a commitment to whimsy that would make a cartoon sponge proud.

Ben Guarino

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