It’s Science Time!

Part of what you are about to read was originally written as a letter emailed to a friend. Thanks, dear friend, for your permission to share it with my enormous readership.


I do some half-assed science-y reading from time to time. I say “half-assed” because I don’t have any background besides a hard-earned B in high school biology and one miserable year as an Honours Psych major. I don’t know much about science but it interests me to read about it. I skip the hard parts in favour of trolling around for interesting facts. Here are some:

For a very long time people believed that the heart, not the brain, was the seat of the intellect, the source of thoughts, the home of the mind, if you will. This makes me wonder what they thought their heads were for? There’s the obvious: the head carries your face around, and is a nice place to keep a hat. You can put food in it.  But the grey stuff inside might as well have been tapioca pudding, and for some people – not mentioning any names – that is still true.

Because I am living in these modern times, I am conscious, if I stop to think about it, that my thoughts are in my head. But they’re not! The mind is not the brain. It’s probably more complicated than we know even now. The other day I was working on an art project. There was a small practical problem I didn’t know how to solve. When, after some trial and error, the solution finally came to me, I instinctively put my hand on my heart. So who knows?

And now some facts about ears.

You probably already know this: if a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one around? The answer is no, it does not make a sound. When the tree falls, it creates the waves that are then turned into sound by our ears. No ears, no sound. Period. That’s it. You don’t have to think about it anymore.

You know those little tubes in your inner ears that are filled with fluid? They are called the labyrinth. There are canals, and a vestibule. You could get lost in there. The fluid in those little tubes helps you balance, among other things. When analysed, the liquid turns out to have a similar composition to sea water. But not your modern times sea water, no. It is like nothing so much as prehistoric sea water. I don’t know how they figure these things out. You may well ask: how did it get in there? Turns out your body makes it, by some complicated process. So what you are carrying around in your ears, your very own ears, are two tiny homemade bowls of the soup we crawled out of.

(Disclaimer: this thing about inner ear fluid is one of those things “I read somewhere once.” I can no longer remember where, or find the fact again. So I could be completely dead wrong, but I don’t think I could have made it up. Feel free to research the subject if you like and post a comment with the correct facts. I should tell you that I will read your comment with interest, and then go on believing the facts as I have presented them here.)

(Also: I realize I should have said “the soup out of which we crawled.” Sorry, sticklers. Sometimes a writer finds that using proper grammar doesn’t sound right for the desired tone. Apologies also to Miss Copeland who taught Grammar at F.J Rutland Junior High. Boy-oh-boy she drilled it into us! I’m grateful, though I know I frequently fall short – fall frequently short? – frequently shortly fall? – of her ideal.)

(Correction: My brother, who is also my fact-checker, informs me that it was Mrs. Copeland, not Miss Copeland as reported earlier. I find this hard to believe. I wouldn’t have thought you could get a licence to teach Grammar in those days unless you were a bona fide spinster. She certainly looked the part.)

(Full disclosure: I am old enough to have been taught capital-g-Grammar, as a subject in its own right. Wow. That’s old.)

Speaking of hot liquids: I’m sure you’ve heard that if you put a frog into a pot of boiling water, the frog will jump out. But if you put a frog into cold water and bring it gradually (gradually bring it?) to a boil, the frog will stay in and get royally cooked. This is sometimes used as helpful advice to people in toxic workplaces or abusive relationships. I’m not sure how it’s meant to help, but okay. It is always told with a subtle “gee, frogs are daft” subtext but my question is: who the hell does that to a frog?

Take Marie Curie. She did all those radiation experiments, before anyone knew what radiation was or what it might do. That’s what makes an experiment an experiment, after all. To this day, even her cookbooks are so radioactive they are kept in lead boxes. She was literally hot. Hotter than frog soup.

Last year my daughter had to write a paper for her science class. She had been instructed to research a particular scientist who did some things she did not understand, for reasons that were not made clear to her. So being the kind of mother who gets all excited at an opportunity to do some half-assed science-y reading, I looked him up.

Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier lived during the French Revolution and has a couple of important achievements to his credit. His wife was a smart cookie in her own right and the whole thing is pretty interesting. He helped develop the metric system. He figured out something about water, but I forget what it was. Here they are:

Then there’s this: at that time, people did not understand why animals give off heat.  Lavoisier determined that respiration is actually a very slow, very small process of combustion which to me can mean only one thing: we are on fire. It is a slow burn, but we are burning.

This makes sense to me on more levels than I can name. This means that we did not so much discover fire as birth it. It means we are attracted to bonfires because they are mirrors. Of course we must be on fire. Or at least we must be vessels that carry fire, or how could we cook those tiny bowls of ear soup?

Happy New Year, then, to all of us low fires wandering around here on earth. Seven billion walking fires with a nice hot bowl of soup (or tapioca pudding) on top. When I’m in the mood to think about the meaning of life, a mood that comes on me fairly frequently and an activity I consider to be one of the chief uses of my head, or heart, or both, I usually end up hoping that I’m at least making a decent contribution to the human experiment, not just burning away to no good purpose.

Lavoisier was guillotined of course. Isn’t that always the way.


©2016 Ellen Peterson


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s