On oysters, smart worms and 'gosh' numbers

Saturday, 25 November 1995

Even Durban's Battery Beach offers opportunity to relax and contemplate the wonders of the universe...

ONE is not normally able to do this on Battery Beach because of the crowds. This day, the beach was all but deserted after the parking lot was closed off by camouflage-uniformed men.

A lone bulldozer toiled pathetically against the inexorable march of the sea's erosion provoking the thought that "time and tide wait for no man". Thoughts like these tend to have a domino effect and I moved on to thinking about how such expressions originate.

A crab scuttled across my path. "We are what we eat" came to mind. Misha Agishtein, a Soviet scientist who emigrated to the USA and shared an office with me for some months, was a brilliant mathematician, but with some strange sociological theories.

For example, he believed Japanese people were fiercely predatory in business, and that the reason was a cultural preference for eating food that was still alive - such as oysters.

This was why, Misha told me, Jews did not eat pigs or shellfish. "Forget tapeworms," he said. "Pigs will eat other pigs."

I thought it best to not argue the point since he was himself a Jew. It would be like trying to argue with Buthelezi when he claims to speak for all Zulus, but I digress.

There's a variety of flatworm - planaria to the biologist - that can be taught to navigate a maze. The prize of food lies at the other end, but they have to be shown the way.

If you take the selfsame planarian worms and hack them into tiny bits and feed those bits to other planarian worms, those worms acquire the knowledge of how to navigate the maze.

Aha! you may say. Obviously there was a trail left in the maze from the last piece of food dragged through to teach the worms.

Not so. The fed worms were placed in new, clean, identically-designed mazes.

Cannibalism or communion? Gosh!

There are a number of things in the universe that make one go "Gosh!" Frederik Pohl wrote about gosh numbers. Like minus 40 degrees. Celsius or Fahrenheit? It doesn't matter. They're the same. Gosh!

Point-five degrees is the angular diameter of both the Sun and Moon as seen from the Earth. If these were not the same, we would not have eclipses. And the Prime Minister of India would not have to flee his country because of superstition about the ill-effects of an eclipse. Gosh!

Speaking of "Gosh". The word is of course a euphemism for "God". Which led to my thinking about miraculous events.

There are many naturally-occurring examples of immaculate conception (or parthenogenesis). They mainly occur in insects.

Wingless aphid females in the hot dry summer months produce further generations of mainly wingless female aphids. They do this by splitting their eggs -- like amoebae -- without loss of gene structure. When males are again plentiful, they resume sexual reproduction.

Then there are honeybees. A bee colony consists of the queen, workers, and drones. The drones -- which are all fertile males -- develop from unfertilised eggs laid by the queen.

Under artificial constraints, more is possible. Scientists have removed eggs from a variety of animals, subjected these to various stimuli such as pricking, shaking, chemicals, extremes of temperature, and more.

Frogs have been particularly responsive to this, and many adult frogs developed from such eggs. Then again, frogs are also known to spontaneously undergo sex changes...

More interesting is the case of the female rabbit where the egg was removed from her uterus, activated by pricking, and then popped back in.

Hormone treatment had previously been administered so that her womb was prepared. The egg developed normally, and a visibly normal child was born.

Could this happen or have happened to a human being?

Of course. The right combination of natural herbs and foodstuffs would create the hormonal balance. Strenuous activity could cause dislodging and reimplantation of the egg.

Don't think of using this as a Biblical explanation though. In such a case, the immaculately conceived offspring would always be female, a genetic duplicate of the mother.

In her own image, so to speak...