Rolling about in the lab aisles

Saturday, 10 August 1996

Life on Mars? What about Earth then?

Those of us who read Modesty Blaise may remember Willie Garvin speaking about "the flux" -- when seemingly unrelated occurrences are suddenly found to have a connection.

Earlier this week, I had logged in to my computer which always greets me with words of wisdom. That day, it had this to say:

Acceptance without proof is the fundamental characteristic of Western religion, Rejection without proof is the fundamental characteristic of Western science. - Gary Zukav, "The Dancing Wu Li Masters"

I was thinking about this later that day when NASA announced that strong evidence of primitive life had been found in a Martian meteorite.

The sample is about 3.6 billion years old, which predates the Garden of Eden by at least 3 billion years. And it wasn't from this planet!

No one is going to believe it. They should cancel the press release.

The way of scientific enquiry is not for the faint of heart.

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About 4 years ago, I was a guest of the Instituto Genitico Moleculare at the Catalan town of Alghero on northeast Sardinia.

Towering cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean shelter a town that has not changed much since the days of Spanish occupation. The institute, which performs world-beating research into molecular genetics, is an anachronism here.

Marcello Siniscalco,the silver-haired head of the institute, regaled us with tales of his life on the island 25 years before, when he and a doctor friend were conducting research into night blindness.

This recessive disease affects a large number of Sardinian males since it is transmitted on the X chromosome. Since Sardinia is an island with a relatively constant gene pool, the disease perpetuates itself.

Siniscalco and his colleagues came to know about the disease only after an anonymous letter was published in a newspaper in the mountain town of Nuoro.

The letter writer said that he suffered from the disease as did many people he knew of, and wanted to know whether there was a cure.

Why did the writer choose anonymity? Like many rural Sardinians, he was a shepherd, spending many months alone in the mountains with his flock in search of good grazing.

Any thieves who knew that he was blind at night would have promptly relieved him of his flock.

Siniscalco and his friend arrived in the mountains to conduct surveys into night blindness but were faced with uncooperative subjects, most of whom were shepherds.

So they devised a foolproof test for night blindness.

They would befriend a shepherd in a pub at night, have a few drinks, then walk out of the pub on either side of the subject towards a solid brick wall.

At the last second possible, they would step aside.

If the shepherd smashed his nose against the wall, he was night blind.

The story had a sequel, (said Siniscalco when we finally picked ourselves off the floor). Years later, the letter writer contacted his doctor friend, identifying himself. He was dying, and had decided to leave his eyeballs to the research effort.

But in religiously conservative central Sardinia where desecration of the corpse was unthinkable, the eyeballs has to be obtained surreptitiously. How?

The shepherd's daughter had been notified by her father of his dying wish. On the morning of the funeral, she arranged a private audience with the corpse.

The doctor arrived with a glass eye in each pocket, pulled the switch and left.

Unfortunately, the doctor's assistant shipped the eyeballs to Siniscalco not packed on ice, but in a jar of alcohol, quite pickled.

I sighed wistfully, recalling my high school days when my physics teacher hauled us to the top of the bell tower to demonstrate acceleration due to gravity.

"I'm going to drop this stone and time how long it takes to hit the ground," he said.

And he pressed the stone and dropped the stopwatch...