So it’s not that I did not have problems with the premise of The Fly. I had exactly the problem anyone would think of regarding it: if the transporter pod will merge Seth Brundle with the fly that’s in there, why would it not also merge Brundle with the many microorganisms in the air and in his body? And microorganisms necessarily in his body, that couldn’t be handled by a sterile transporter pod environment? But no, the thing is that this movie came out the summer after I was done with middle school. Yes, I was as done with middle school as it is possible to be. But I escaped having this be a reason people treated me in middle school like that for the second-best of possible reasons.
I know how I got to thinking about antiperspirants for a big weekly piece and it isn’t because I got to 5 pm Thursday and realized, “Oh! I have a big weekly piece due!” and grabbed at the first thing that I saw. And, I guess, was in the bathroom or maybe taking stuff out of the supermarket bag. Or was in the supermarket, in which case I’m glad I wasn’t lost in the pet care aisle. I don’t know that I could do 250 words about aquarium gravel, never mind 700.
It took me time to get to using antiperspirants. I didn’t use them when I was a kid because kids are supposed to smell like that. I think it’s how parents track where we are when we aren’t screaming or crying or knocking something over. Anyway people don’t object to that, or they figure it’s hard enough getting us to wash any part of the body so why add to the pile of things we should be doing but aren’t?
As a teenager I started to realize I should wear something because by then I was a teenaged boy. That’s a fun time full of insecurity and defective judgements. One of the less defective judgements does come from an insecurity, though, wondering if everyone else thinks you smell like obsessively rewatching The Wrath Of Khan on VHS, cheap pizza flooded with enough garlic powder to soak up all the grease, and masturbation. It encourages one to try doing something to have less of an odor, although not necessarily showering every day because who wants to get up early enough for that? And who wants to shower at night when The Wrath Of Khan isn’t going to rewatch itself? I suppose technology might have changed that some, since there’s probably, like, Twitter feeds entirely built of Wrath of Khan characters watching movies at each other. But they’re definitely not watching the pan-and-scan version.
When I reached this point I was intrigued by Mitchum, because their commercials promised it was so effective you could skip a day. I’m up for doing anything that allows me to skip a day. I got really good at skipping a day. I also liked the part where they sold a little jar full of cream to slather on my body, instead of just a roll-on or stick or spray. There aren’t many scent-altering creams people get to put on and I suppose there’s probably reasons for that. I don’t want to know, though.
For a long time I looked for deodorants instead of antiperspirants because I was a science-oriented kid and so kind of stupid. My reasoning was that what is really objectionable about sweat is the scent, not the mere fact of sweating. And besides sweating serves some purpose; it’s not something the body does just to be impish and annoying. I was young and didn’t yet realize how much stuff the body does exclusively to be annoying, especially with joint pain. Anyway, this is the kind of thinking you get when you let kids grow up to be physics majors. Be more responsible!
That attitude changed when I got a job in Singapore. It’s a fine country, but it has the climate of the interior of a boiling tea kettle. I learned whenever I stepped outside for any reason to bring along a bottle of water or soda or tea or anything, replenishing my fluids as fast as they poured out my whole epidermis. I suppose I smelled all right, for all that I looked as if I’d been used to mop up a food court. Finally I came to admit that while the body might sweat in order to maintain its cool, it’s not actually good at that, and we have air conditioning now, and I switched over to antiperspirants maybe two years after I left Singapore.
I don’t notice Mitchum on the shelves anymore, nor any kind of cream in a jar as antiperspirant. Maybe we’re not trusted with creams like that anymore for which I don’t blame anyone. I instead buy whatever antiperspirant catches my eye and is probably on sale. This has worked very well except that time some careless shopper abandoned a tube of Parmesan cheese next to the Arm and Hammer. It was the same week I picked up a misplaced bottle of spaghetti sauce from the shampoo aisle, so everything worked out as well as it possibly could. What more does anyone ever want?
My love was working in the yard. I wasn’t. We have a well-agreed-upon divide of household chores. My love gardens, while I bring in all the groceries in one trip and offer to run back to the store for the butter we forgot. Anyway, my love encountered what we believed to be poison ivy.
That was natural enough. There’s been poison ivy in the yard before. We got rid of as much as we could last year in an expedition that brought us into the neighbor’s yard. A lot of ivy was growing through the fence. Somehow our neighbor was willing to accept our offer to dig a noxious weed out of his yard for free. It takes all kinds to make a neighborhood. Most of that kind are neighbors.
But we got to thinking about poison ivy. Most poison you get into your body, and then you get very sick or die, and that’s that. The whole point of poison is to stop getting eaten by heaping a pile of dead animals around where they tried eating. But poison ivy? You get it in or on you and then maybe up to three days later you get an irritating rash that lasts up to three weeks. As poisons go this is pretty incompetent. It depends on animals brushing up against it and then, a couple days later, being pretty irritated. And then the animals are supposed to peruse their travel logs and review any suspicious plants they might have passed near. And then after extensive reviews determine the element in common to all these itching incidents is being up to seventy-two hours removed from the close proximity of a bit of poison ivy. That’s asking a lot from animals, who are lousy at tracking infection vectors, except the Malayan Golden Forensic Mousedeer.
So I put “the heck is even with poison ivy” into DuckDuckGo and right there on the first page of results is a link from something called “mamapedia” and I’m not going to touch a link with a domain name like that. My most optimistic guess is it’s like Wikipedia but with the charming parts of a southern accent. According to some non-scary-pedias the thing that makes poison ivy so kind-of poison-ish is called urushiol. Turns out nearly all the itch-based plants, like poison ivy, poison oak, poison sumac, sumac oak, oak ivy, and so on, get their itching by liquids called urushiols. Urushiol is a kind of compound known as an oleoresin, which is a kind of resin whose name you can yodel.
It’s not a poison, though. These plants use it somehow to retain water. That it irritates skin is a side effect. The plant doesn’t get anything out of it. It’s just the plants needed to retain water and they muddled on the best they could. There’s a lesson for us all in that. I like to imagine if we explained the situation to a session of the Poison Ivy Witenagemot, in a committee of the whole, they’d apologize. “We had no idea,” surely they’d declare. “Why didn’t you say something sooner?” and then we could share with them water-tower technology. And we’d all have a good laugh about the misunderstanding that caused so much irritation over the centuries. They’ll mend their ways, limiting their irritation to watching old TV shows on modern HDTVs with the aspect ratio all wrong. I’m not saying that isn’t also irritating. But it’s a quicker kind. It’s an irritation you can resolve simply by jumping up and down and shouting, “What is wrong with you people? We spent fifteen years explaining letterboxing movies to you and you finally got it and now don’t you even notice how everybody on The Mary Tyler Moore Show looks like a pile of mashed potatoes wearing Seventies Plaid?!” and then being asked to leave the room.
It turned out our poison ivy wasn’t, anyway. It’s an easy mistake to make. Poison ivy comes in a lot of shapes and sizes, ranging from stringy vines crawling around dead trees up to functional self-service gas stations ready for the new chip cards the United States is getting in twenty years after everybody else in the world. All you can be sure of is that leaves-of-three thing, but it’s no surprise if you count up the leaves on a perfectly innocent plant it might happen to be a multiple of three. Something like a third of all the counting numbers are a multiple of three. Still, ours was a false alarm. The plant was a perfectly innocent Striated Woodsy Guiltywort vine, brought over from the old country by settlers who thought that was a good idea. And that emergency cold shower after applying all that urushiol repellant was just jolly good practice in being made miserable after poison ivy exposures.
Also besides not being actually all that poison, poison ivy isn’t ivy. At some point you have to wonder if the people who named it were quite sure what they were doing.
|Animals That Average People Think Are Rodents||Animals That Biologists Think Are Rodents|
|Rats, mice||Many things popularly called rats or mice|
|Rabbits||Guinea pigs, if you aren’t at least a little bit suspicious of their front paws having four toes while their back have only three. And how they give birth to cubs fully-furred, with open eyes that see perfectly well. Oh, and they get scurvy. If you don’t feel unease about calling something with that slate of anomalies a rodent, fine, guinea pigs are rodents.|
|Skunks, ferrets, otters||Capybaras, if we absolutely have to name something else.|
|Baby raccoons||OK, and we’ll give you beavers. Did we say squirrels already?|
OK, so the protagonist volunteers to try out the diagnosed-with-multiple-controllable-conditions scientists’ new evolution-accelerating treatments. After several preliminary sessions seem to do little he finds that in subtle but key ways he’s been altered to a more perfect specimen for a human-like species in our environment, including:
- The tissues within his knees regenerate their soft, padded material for several further decades, indicating he might reach his mid-90s before his knees start to ache.
- His body produces virtually no cholesterol anymore, so that what he consumes in his ordinary diet is sufficient for membrane fluidity in his body’s cells and restoring his nervous system’s myelin sheathing, without the risk of building unwanted amounts in his blood vessels.
- Now his skin produces so much vitamin D that despite living in mid-Michigan it’s no longer necessary to consider taking supplements during the long winter, although if he moved to a less cloudy area he might be at mildly increased risk of hypervitaminosis D.
- There’s a slight notch in his thigh so that when he flies coach he can plug the earphone into the seat speaker plug without it digging into his leg.
- He shows virtually no signs of repetitive strain injury while typing anymore.
What do you think? Can I build this into a six-volume mega-book series ready for movie franchising?
“I have a stick.”
I nodded to our pet rabbit. “Stick-wise, that is indeed a thing you have.” The phrasing seemed to confuse him; he shook his front half out and set down the chew stick again.
“It’s my stick and I have it,” he said, “And I can do anything I want with it.”
“I know. For instance, you can chew it.” This stopped him in the middle of chewing on it, so, that’s how I knew this conversation was going to go. “Or not, if you don’t want to,” and that should have him completely flummoxed.
“You know why you don’t have a stick?” My thought was that I could in some sense be said to have every stick on the property, including as a subset the sticks that our rabbit has. But is that the same conceptual theory of having that he was working with at the moment, and if it’s not, is it compatible enough for us to have a meaningful conversation? This is the kind of thing that goes through my mind whenever, say, the waitress asks which kind of bread I’d like for my toast, which is why I’m always running about four minutes behind the conversation. Here, for example, our rabbit answered, “Because I have it!”
“I know you have the stick. I gave you the stick.”
“As well you might!”
“In fact, I gave you all those sticks,” pointing at a partially-tied-together bunch of chew sticks, most of which were scattered around his front paw, and a couple of which were rolling out of his pen, and one of which he was taking turns holding in his mouth and putting down to lecture me about.
He nodded and said, “I chewed the twine off them!”
“And we were glad to see you do that. It proved to us that you’re not a fascist.” And here I have to point out that while I exaggerate certain aspects of my conversations with our pet rabbit for dramatic effect, the “not a fascist” joke is one that my love and I actually did observe while watching him chew the bundle of sticks loose, which shows you what kinds of jokes we have flying around the house.
He scrunched forward, looking kind of like a sack full of rabbit flowing forward under the tides, pushing his front paws onto the sticks, which was adorable. It struck me he’s been doing a lot of adorable stuff lately, more so than usual.
“This is about the mouse, isn’t it?”
He jerked his head up and back. “You think?”
“Are you worried we kept that mouse in here?”
“Why were you keeping a mouse right on top of my cage?”
“He wouldn’t fit underneath you.” The mouse we had found wandering around the dining room, at the height of winter, and we caught him and put him in a cage because we weren’t so cold-hearted as to release him to the wild while it was still too cold for molecular motion out there.
“Male mice can’t help how they smell,” I said. “Biology dictates that they use an atrocious body wash so that female mice know they’re engaged in important male activities.”
He barked, somehow, which might just be his way of snorting. “He made that wheel squeak all the time.”
“You can’t blame the mouse for following his biological imperatives of running on a wheel, smelling bad, and hoisting things.”
He flopped over on his side, which is again, adorable, and said, “Mice follow too many gender-normative stereotypes.” I allowed that. But I reminded him, we let the mouse go several weeks ago, and he hasn’t been back. “And I’m better than a mouse.”
I had a hunch. “Are you worried we were going to get a mouse to replace you?”
“No mouse could replace me! Not ten mice mousing together could replace me!”
“I’d guess not. We’d never think of replacing you.”
He rolled up onto all fours and cried, “Ah-ha!” So I gulped. “If you never thought of it then how come you just asked if I thought you were thinking of it?”
There might be no way out of this. “Well. We once got to talking about what would be the worst thing that could possibly happen” — he frowned a little less, which is how rabbits smile — “and we agreed the sudden and irrevocable failure of the electromagnetic force would be the worst. But having to replace you with anything would be one of the four or five worst things.” He actually came in third, but, I didn’t want to swell his head too much after comparing favorably to the complete dissolution of the laws of physics.
He looked satisfied, and announced, “I have a stick,” and picked his chew stick up again.
So, some good news from our animal-watching friends. According to a paper in Proceedings of the Royal Society, Biological Sciences department, wild mice like to run on wheels, in pretty much the same ways that regular old domesticated mice do, so doctors Johanna H Meijer and Yuri Robbers have some payoff for all their mouse-watching. It hasn’t all been about making mice nervous about being stared at; those are just bonuses.
According to their research wild mice run pretty much the same way domestic mice do: the mouse comes out, pokes at the wheel a little, then hops on and starts running until it starts squeaking. Then the mouse keeps running until the squeaking drives somebody crazy, and that somebody comes out and dabs a little vegetable oil on the axle. Once that’s done, the mouse is overjoyed because, hey, vegetable oil. That stuff doesn’t grow on trees. I guess except palm oil. And banana oil. Maybe also oak oil. Or for that matter tuna oil, for fish that have been lifted into trees, perhaps by a waterspout or by a practical joker or by the efforts of a daring fish explorer. I guess the important thing is, vegetable oil on the axle. Once that’s there, the mouse is delighted because steel slathered in vegetable oil is delicious, and the mouse can lick it all off, giving much-needed calories and a refreshing taste sensation before going back to running and driving people crazy by their squeaking. There’s nothing about this that requires domestication, is there? Just fish.
Mouse wheel-running, the paper says, is done in bursts lasting from under one minute to as much as eighteen minutes, which I think is interesting because it means a mouse can plausibly run a wheel for longer than the half-life of a neutron outside an atomic nucleus. I can picture mice puttering along on the wheel and chuckling at a pair of free neutrons, telling them, “by the time I get off this wheel at least one of you is gonna be gone.” So now you know why back in middle school I was the kid people wouldn’t play Dungeons and Dragons with.
The average wheel-running speed for a mouse in the wild is about 1.3 kilometers per hour, while that in the lab is 2.3 kph. The maximum speed of a wild mouse, though, was about 5.7 kph, while laboratory mice topped out at 5.1. This means something, although you have to divide all those figures by 1.6 to know what they mean in the United States.
The researchers got videos of different animals running the wheel. There were a couple of rats who went running, and some shrews. There were some frogs, too, raising the question of wait a minute how can a frog run on a wheel? Surely they were hopping the wheel instead, and that should’ve been a data point for the paper about whether wild mice will get their hopping done on wheels. But more surprising and I swear this is exactly what they say, there were incidents of slugs and even a snail getting on the wheel. A snail! This, this is what Turbo is doing to screw up the ecosystem.
They have video of the slug running on the wheel, too. It’s the third video, twenty seconds of time at http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/281/1786/20140210/suppl/DC1 and as you can see at a glance, nothing happens in it. But if you zoom the video up to full-screen, and if you get a bigger screen, you can see the wheel is turning a wee tiny little bitty bit, at about the same rate that Pluto rolls around the solar system, only with a slug. Why do they not have the snail video? Did they feel embarrassed on the snail’s behalf?
A caption to some of the photos mentions that there were birds that visited the wheel, but none of them were spotted running. Superficially this is a very frog-like situation since I’d expect birds to be flying the wheel, but if they’re flying, they don’t even need the wheel. But birds can run when the spirit so moves them, such as when they need to complete a Fun Run which they entered because of the attractive rhyme such offer. That no birds were observed to run indicates a shortage of the fun in outdoor spaces near campus. Maybe the birds are worried about their quals.
I wonder if now that we know mice like wheels there’s any research under way to see what wheels feel about mice.
(Note: Not a complete list.)
- The head.
- The neck.
- The … uh … widdershins?
- I think there’s stifles or something?
- The anterior whelk?
- The … Tralfamadorian … infandibulator I want to say? Infindibulator? Something like that.
- The retroactive … er … carporeal … uh … thingy?
- The parts that’ll step on you.
- The parts that’ll bite you.
I bet you haven’t gone thinking about neuroscience in ages, possibly longer, which is fine, but it’d be pretty caddish of you neuroscientists out there to take me up on the bet. You should have better things to do than pick quarrels over my rhetorical tricks anyway. That’s something for the advance team of offensive forensics experts to be doing. Let them have their glory.
Anyway, the neat thing about neuroscience is that most of what anyone knows about it is wrong, and what they know that isn’t wrong is so misleading it would be easier if it were just wrong instead. For example, everyone has heard about how we only use ten percent of our brain. What’s misleading about this point is that we don’t say what it is we use that ten percent of our brains for. Some use it for thinking, some use it for light crafts, some use it as a place to keep the spatulas. It’s the other ninety percent that ought to interest us, because that’s the part the brain is using for its own purposes, and it’ll tell us what those are only when it’s good and ready.
One of the greatest breakthroughs in understanding the workings of the brain came about in a horrible railroad construction accident on September 13, 1848, a mere 145 years to the day before the debut of Late Night With Conan O’Brien, which hasn’t got anything to do with this. But in 1848 one Phineas Gage was doing some railroad construction thing of the kind they did in 1848 when it exploded and sent a long metal bar through his head. Amazingly, Gage lived, but his personality was radically changed. Whereas before he was comfortable holding his head high and looking around at people, suddenly he did a lot more staring down at his shoes. And according to reports, while he had in the past walked into rooms of all sorts the way anyone does, afterward he could only enter by turning his head or, better, his whole body to the side and sneaking in. “Clearly,” thought doctors, “the metal bar in his head has altered his mental state. He seems to now believe he’s in California,” which was correct. Thus metal bars clearly don’t diminish one’s ability to tell whether one has moved from Vermont to San Francisco, but neuroscientists hope to find something which will. “We’re not sure,” they said recently at a conference in Rutland, California, “But we think fiddling with Google Maps will do it.” It’s worth nothing that Gage also grew a lot angrier around people with magnets, which is one of the reasons he stopped hanging around refrigerator doors.
More recent and important breakthroughs came in the 1950s and 1960s when the corpus callosum, the connections between the hemispheres, in brains of certain epileptic patients was experimentally severed. If one then showed a picture of, say, a paper clip to the right eye, controlled by the left hemisphere, then the nations of the Western hemisphere would think they were seeing a paper clip, while the nations of the Eastern hemisphere would just get all tense from the idea that someone was trying to clip their papers but not know why. While these were startling results, the resulting increase in world tension was judged not to be worth it, especially after science fiction writers began publishing satires of how the world would get blown up over a tragic clip-related misunderstanding, and we bought everybody staples under the Great Stapling program. The inability of the world’s markets to produce enough staplers would result in a crisis in 1974, but nobody noticed because there was too much else going on.
The newest approach to understanding the brain’s functioning is to measure how much oxygen different parts consume while the brain does work, because we got some great brain-part-oxygen-consumption machines in the mail and since we didn’t order them, we get to keep them for free, because we remember those public service announcements where the Eskimo gets an electric fan in the mail. It turns out the brain uses oxygen the most rapidly when it has to haul a wheelbarrow full of pebbles out to the garden, then slightly less rapidly when it’s using a block-and-tackle system to pull an engine mount out of a car, and the least oxygen of all when the brain is trying to blow a fly off the table by blowing at it. These results have surprised nearly everybody except the flies.
What do you suppose the hamster community thinks of the person who invented the hamster wheel? It’s not an obvious invention, the way the cat motorcycle, the gerbil paddle steamer, or the wallaroo Quadricycle are. You need to have a vision of wheels alongside rodents, if hamsters are still rodents. They keep finding out different animals aren’t actually rodents. Just last month a report in Nature showed that the horse was definitely not a rodent, following an investigation by biologists who didn’t want to work too hard that day.
The first hamster to make the wheel work was some kind of genius among hamsters, too, though. I imagine hamsters to this day squeak her name when they want to talk sarcastically about the smart one in their group.