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June 29th, 2010 | Meera
In Part I of this essay, I told you how a short story by Swedish writer Lars Gustafsson presented me with what seemed like a useful analog for talking about how I experience scientific nomenclature. This second part of the essay probably won’t make much sense if you haven’t read the first.
As a reminder, here is the sentence I stole from Gustafsson’s marvelous short story “Greatness Strikes Where it Pleases,” and edited to suit my purposes. Apologies to him.
Scientists have such funny names for their things: that is their peculiarity, and they have a right to all those names which I don’t have.
In case you’re one of the few people reading this who doesn’t know me personally, I’ll clarify that I’m a working, early-career science writer with a graduate degree—in the humanities. In other words, I’m an educated nonscientist with a deep interest in science and some hard-earned, on-the-job training in understanding scientific concepts (especially within the field of health and medicine, about which I have begun to write regularly in the past year). But my formal academic background doesn’t help me much when it comes to grappling with the nomenclature of science.
In Gustafsson-terms, I don’t have a right to the “funny names” scientists have for “their things.” And that can make science a difficult world to travel in.
At the simplest level, unfamiliarity with the naming of things in science can act as a barrier to understanding. As a writer, even one who has a defined “beat,” my livelihood depends on flexibility. I need to be able to sensibly cover a broad range of topics, each of which has its own names for its own things. The more specific the scientific field, the less likely I am to know all of those names and the higher the barrier I have to scale.
I’ll give you an example. At the moment, I’m researching a story about multiple sclerosis. Even before I began working on the piece, I grasped the basic facts of the disease. I knew it was a neurological disorder marked by lesions in the tissues of the brain, spinal cord, and optic nerves. Specifically, multiple sclerosis causes patchy plaques in the insulating myelin sheath—composed of proteins and phospholipids—around the nerve fibers of the central nervous system. In doing so, it disrupts the smooth transmission of action potentials traveling along the axons between nerve cells. This leads to numbness, weakness, poorly controlled muscle movements, and changes in vision.
I would argue that the text above is reflective of some of the reasons names in science are problematic for a nonscientist. For one thing, it, like many clinical texts, uses two different names—lesion and plaque—for the same thing. For another, both those words have everyday connotations that contradict their scientific meanings. In ordinary English, a plaque is a flat object, while the plaques of multiple sclerosis are typically raised, or even wedge-shaped. In ordinary English, a lesion is often thought of as an open wound or fresh cut, but in the disease context it’s an area of scar tissue: sclerosis comes from a Greek root that means “hardening”. (I think of Gustaffson’s boy, bewildered by saws called tails, even though they have nothing to do with tails.)
In addition, though it is careful to avoid more specialized terms like CD4 T-cells or MS-susceptibility SNPs, the description also includes a number of words that are limited to the scientific domain. Of course, my job demands that I know, comprehend, and accurately use names like myelin sheath and phospholipids (and CD4 T-cells and MS-susceptibility SNPs). In learning them, I have added the concepts they represent (and the concepts required for understanding what they represent, which are themselves numerous) to the objects of my world. By extension, I have reached for the right to know that they exist. I consider them, and many other names like them, as tools in my shed.
Yet even when it comes to a single disease, that’s not saying very much.
This Dictionary of Multiple Sclerosis, for instance, spans 254 pages and contains over 600 entries, some of which define words familiar to me but most of which do not (I hadn’t encountered Experimental Autoimmune Encephalomyelitis before last week, and while it may or may not appear in my article, I’ve found it necessary for understanding several of the research papers I’m reading).
Before I finish work on this story, there will be several dozen more scientific terms that will have entered my vocabulary. Some of them will become permanent fixtures in my toolshed: old friends that I may use to pound in future fence posts. Others, though, will inevitably retreat once again into the world of things whose names I do not know. And the same will be true of the next piece I write, and the next. Though my comfort with and command of the naming of things in science grows daily, I will probably always operate, in a deep sense, within a world where what exists and what does not is at least a little “vague and uncertain.”
I say these things not to bemoan my fate, which is self-chosen and quite beloved (and not in order to defend writers from criticism when we get things wrong), but because I think it’s worth talking about. I think it’s worth examining the ways in which, when it comes to scientific terminology, many of us—even those of us who work with scientists—are akin to Gustafsson’s boy. We may feel unsure of what things the world contains, and we may lack a sense of true ownership over those things and their names.
I attended the wedding of an old friend two weekends ago. My roommate from college, a third-year medical resident and one of the smartest, most driven people I know, had brought some work with her for the weekend. Looking at the first sentence of a scientific paper on her iPhone—a paper she needed to understand in order to properly diagnose a difficult case—she chuckled to herself. “Can I read something to you?” she asked. When I nodded, she read:
Hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis (HLH) is also known as the autosomal recessive familial hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis (FHL), familial erythrophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis (FEL), and viral-associated hemophagocytic syndrome (VAHS).
As soon as she finished, we both broke out into laughter. It was impossible not to laugh. The sentence, as written, was impenetrable.
This was the case despite the fact that we both recognized its capacity to hold and convey meaning. If you had complete access to the terms it used—if you knew all the funny names for all the things in it—you would have a fairly precise understanding of what the paper happened to be about (as it happens, a rare genetic autoimmune disorder affecting the cells of the blood and which apparently is known by at least four names).
You might argue that those words weren’t written with me in mind. This is partly true. My friend was much better equipped than I for the task of overcoming the barrier of all the terms in that first sentence. She continued reading the paper as I sat by her in the sun, bringing the full weight of eight years of medical training to bear on the density of terminology it contained, and (presumably) managing to hop quite neatly over the problem.
There are excellent reasons for science to keep its nomenclature separate from the vocabulary of ordinary speech. Scientific discourse values specific denotation, not ill-defined connotation. It values the compression of ideas. It abhors ambiguity. This is why so many scientific terms, including the ones that dominate the sentence we laughed over, have been derived from Greek and Latin: languages that, unlike our own modern tongues, have ceased to evolve and can provide (apparently) stable containers for precise concepts.
I appreciate these qualities of scientific speech, even though they serve to build a world in which I sometimes founder. Assuming the names for things really are precise and unambiguous, I can believe that in spite of any confusion I may personally feel, the language of science actually does serve to draw clear demarcations around objects and ideas. I can trust that no one will be sending me to fetch tools by the wrong name; or, worse, to look for tools that do not exist. And I—unlike Gustafsson’s boy—can quite happily accept the limits of my knowledge and work to expand it.
But there was still something true in the laughter I shared with my friend. The sheer bulk of scientific nomenclature, and (more problematic) the fact that it sometimes fails to live up to its ideal of clarity, isn’t lost on scientists themselves.
Physics PhD-holder Philip Ball called for his peers to be clearer and more transparent in their application of existing terms and the invention of new ones, not just for their own sakes but for the rest of us poor saps as well. Fertility, he points out, is now routinely used by demographers to mean both “birth rate” and “the ability to reproduce,” thus “allowing the existence of fertile people who have zero fertility.” And for an example that’s closer to home, take this. My husband is a graduate student in computer science. An early page in one of his textbooks lists several translations between computer science and statistics, which often use different language for the same thing. Estimation in statistics equals learning in computer science (and neither, as Ross can tell you based on many extraordinarily frustrating conversations with me, quite equals what these two common English words mean outside those fields).
We are sent for a tool, but by the wrong name.
Simon Young, co-editor-in-chief of the Journal of Psychiatry & Neuroscience, ranted about the bloating of research vocabulary with jargon and neologisms in 2006, reserving his sharpest vitriol for words ending in what he considers to be the preternaturally ugly suffix -omics. Young’s aesthetic judgments aside, what he really objects to is a troubling disconnect between word and meaning that has arisen as a result of fashion. “I find it interesting,” he comments, “that all journals with it (the word neuropsychopharmacology) in the title publish papers not involving drugs and, therefore, outside the scope of the journal title. Why use such a cumbersome word if you ignore its precise meaning?”
We are sent for a tool, but it does not exist.
True; research is not a woodshed. It is fluid, ongoing, additive. Uncertain names that mean uncertain things multiply daily in the world of science, thanks to the constant formation of neologisms and the lack of a standardized, universally accepted process for coining names for new discoveries or inventions.
To their credit, scientists recognize the problem of vague or inconsistent terminology, and frequently make recommendations to improve the situation. Should I go on? Because I can. What troubles me most is that even when clear and logical rules for how to name things are proposed by well-meaning scientists, as often as not they fail to be adopted by the community at large.
Why? Inertia, probably. Genuine disagreement with the standards, possibly. A simple attachment to what one knows and is habituated to, certainly. And, of course, there is the issue of control. Simply knowing the name of a thing means you have the right to know it exists in the world. But owning a name means you own the thing itself. It means you decide how it exists in the world.
This is not mystical talk. This is, very simply, about power. You only have to look at the heated historical disputes over the naming rights of atomic elements to know the truth of it. The late 1990s christening-pangs of element 104—a highly radioactive substance, most of whose isotopes decay in a matter of minutes or seconds—reflected a struggle for dominance, not just between individual scientists, scientific labs, or associations, but between nations. (The U.S. overpowered Russia. Surprised?)
Here is a sentence from “Greatness Strikes Where it Pleases” that I did not have to edit:
In actual fact, the strong decide what words should be used for.
In the story, the boy who lacks the names of things is not one of the strong. He has no way of knowing what does and does not exist. And he feels the world itself, governed by names he cannot grasp, to be a strange and unfriendly place: full of fearful things that rise up like birds out of the bushes. As a result, he rejects words entirely, retreating into an inner landscape of branching trees and mysterious mushrooms—a world he builds himself from the patterns of shadow and wallpaper.
Greatness strikes where it pleases, writes Gustaffson, and what we are meant to understand from this is that there is a kind of greatness in the boy and his shadowy world. In the context of the story this is a deeply satisfying conclusion. Exquisite, even.
In the context of reality, it’s frustrating. I have no wish to retreat into a world of my own making, and neither, I would wager, do most nonscientists. What I want is for science to meet me halfway.
I am happy to accept that I will never know all the names there are to know, and that I must learn the ones I will learn slowly, one by one. I can take on that work with pleasure. I am far less happy to accept that, having learned a name, it will not always point to the same thing. Or that, having learned about the existence of a new thing, it will not always be called by the same name. And I mourn the idea that the naming of things—in science especially—should fall to the strong, or be used as a national power-play or marketing tool for a discipline. In every scientific field, from genomics to geology to astrophysics, rational minds are calling for the simplification and standardization of language.
Don’t let the strong decide what words should be used for; decide sensibly, as a community, on how to name things. And then share those names with nonscientists as clearly as you can. It will still be difficult for us to understand you sometimes. But we all, I think, would very much like to have the right to know what does and does not exist in this extraordinary world of ours.
June 28th, 2010 | Meera
Last Saturday night, I heard a reading of an extraordinary story by Swedish writer Lars Gustafsson, published in his 1981 collection Stories of Happy People. The piece takes as its central character a severely mentally retarded individual, following him from boyhood to middle-age in a dense fourteen pages and constructing a delicate contrapuntal narrative in which outward circumstances—harsh and melancholy—and an inner world—complex and immensely beautiful—act as intertwining melodies. In its entirety, the story is infused with sweetness and melancholy in equal measure, and it is well worth your investigation.
The reason I’m telling you about it here, though, is because I was struck by how Gustafsson uses nomenclature as an alienating force. In a deep and surprising way, the story reminded me of my own interactions with the scientific world and its language. More about that later.
First, here is how Gustafsson describes the uneasy relationship between the boy and the array of tools he encounters in his family’s woodshop. (Throughout the story, his inability to grasp the names of things sets the boy, who clearly suffers from a profound language impairment, apart from others—who approach objects and command them comfortably through their names.)
Grownups had such funny names for their things: that was their peculiarity, and they had a right to all those names which he didn’t have. He always laughed awkwardly and crept into a corner when his brother and sister tried to teach him those names.
Those things belonged to them: dovetail saws, punches. The old wooden mallet used for pounding in fence posts…they hit him when he came in from the woodshed with wounds and gashes from the tools in the woodshed. They were afraid that he’d really hurt himself. They wanted to keep him away from the tools.
His brother and sister, who knew how, were allowed to handle them. It gave him the feeling that the words, too, belonged to them. Sometimes they might send him to fetch tools that did not exist, “bench marks,” things like that. It gave him a feeling that it would always be vague and uncertain which things existed in the world and which did not. Evidently using words was harder than you might imagine.
They always laughed loudly, doubled up with laughter when he returned empty-handed, or when they had fooled him into going to the far end of the barn searching for impossible objects. In actual fact, the strong decided what words should be used for.
—Greatness Strikes Where it Pleases
When I heard this passage read aloud in the firm voice of actor Colm O’Reilly, I felt a funny tremor of recognition. At first it seemed odd to me that I should so empathize with the boy’s mistrust of language. I spend my life, after all, with words. They are my instruments and my toys. And generally, I love learning new words, especially nouns.* One of my favorite things about skinning a bird is the act of writing its names in my log. I take a special pleasure in tracing those letters, doing my best to control my wayward script and form the words precisely, as if it really matters that I get their shape just right; as if by laying down ink over Dendroica fusca, Blackburnian Warbler, I am not simply recording something that already exists, but re-creating it as well. When I name a bird it becomes known instead of unknown.
Of course, there are many ways to know a thing. I can scrutinize the patterns of a bird’s plumage, the shape of its bill, its size in my hands. I can construct knowledge of a thing, quite deep and true knowledge, in fact, by adding up a hundred different pieces of information. But to hold them together is difficult. Give me a name, and I have a sturdy container for those hundred pieces: a shape for my knowledge.
This is exactly what science tells us, isn’t it, about the human brain? That it craves order? That the unique gift of language is to provide a set of labels with which the brain can produce order out of the too-great tidal stream of data it accepts from the world through the sensory organs? In 2001, for instance, an elegant series of experiments with 36 no doubt adorable participants showed that as early as nine months after birth, saying words aloud while introducing two similar and unfamiliar toys helped babies to reliably differentiate between them.
Playing sounds while introducing the objects, like a spaceship takeoff or a car alarm, did not—and neither did a human voice producing a non-verbal expression of emotion, such as a sound of satisfaction or disgust. Words, and words alone, enabled the babies to place each toy into a separate category. (This was true whether the names were real or nonsense labels, ruling out the notion that the babies were simply responding to word-object pairings they already knew.)
There is also the possibility—not proven, but tantalizing—that language doesn’t just organize sensory information, but influences how it is perceived. Most famously, a number of experiments have shown that speakers of languages with a greater number of words for different but similar hues are better able to distinguish between those hues in the color spectrum.
Last year one study of Greek speakers—who unlike English speakers make a linguistic distinction between light and dark blue with the breathy nouns ghalazio and ble—went a step further. By measuring the electrical activity in their brains as subjects looked at visual stimuli, researchers showed that the greater acuity for color enjoyed by Greek speakers could actually be recorded, in the form of electrophysiological differences, as early as 100 milliseconds after being presented with a colorful shape. This interval is consistent with what we know about the time it takes information to reach the visual processing areas of the brain, and is considered too brief for the participants to have engaged in a conscious awareness of what they were seeing. In addition, the differences arose even though subjects were instructed to attend to the shapes of various stimuli, not their colors. (The paper, along with a few caveats, is detailed here by Language Log. The most interesting caveat has to do with the suggestion, drawn from previous studies, that this kind of language-based interference in color perception is likely limited to the right visual field, which sends information to the left—language dominant—hemisphere of the brain.)
So there is some evidence, preliminary though it may be, that the names we know really do affect, on at least some level, “which things exist in the world and which do not.”
This makes it easy to understand why Gustafsson’s boy, so ill-equipped to learn names, finds the external world vague and uncertain. When you cannot grasp how words connect to objects, navigating amongst objects is confusing and unpredictable. You might find yourself searching for impossible things or overlooking what is right in front of your nose. Also easy to appreciate, in the light of these color studies: the boy’s sense that the right to use each tool is inextricably linked to the ownership of its name. The things in the shed belonged to his brother and sister and so did the words for them. Whereas the boy, lacking words, had neither the right to use the tools nor to know if they existed.
What does all this have to do with me and science and scientific nomenclature?
Well, this: If I make a few edits to a sentence from Gustafsson’s story, it captures something of the experience I sometimes have when I try to navigate within the scientific world.
Grownups had such funny names for their things: that was their peculiarity, and they had a right to all those names which he didn’t have.
I would say:
Scientists have such funny names for their things: that is their peculiarity, and they have a right to all those names which I don’t have.
If anyone is still with me, I’ll talk more about this in Part II of this essay tomorrow.
*(Incidentally, in Hebrew the prosaic “vocabulary” is rendered as the lovely phrase “treasury of words.” I still have the notebook, thin and yellowing, in which I collected some of my first words in that language: book, picture, boa constrictor, prey, primeval forest. If you don’t know or haven’t already guessed why I began with those words in particular, ask me sometime and I’ll tell you.)
June 6th, 2010 | Meera
In the fall of 1889, just past the height of bug-season in his home state, Henry C. M’Cook—then-Vice-President of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia and Vice-Director of the American Entomological Society—wrote a lively article for the North American Review in which he outlined ways of mitigating the reign of the pestilential mosquito. Four pages into his arguments, he found himself distracted (as we all are, from time to time) by a dragonfly.
I have read of a school—if memory serves me truly, it was situate in that highly-developed center of American civilization, New York City—whose session was broken up by the advent of an innocent dragon-fly through an open window. An alarm raised by one scholar passed through the entire room: “A devil’s darning needle! A devil’s darning needle!” The ominous phrase, piped in the shrill quaver of terrified childhood, alarmed the teacher, and the agitation became so general that the school had to be dismissed as an act of humanity.
I love the gentle sarcasm in that. “Act of humanity.” Dr. M’Cook, you were one sly scientist.
In their 2005 book A Dazzle of Dragonflies, Forrest Mitchell and James Lasswell explain that the dragonfly-epithet “devil’s darning needle” has its origins in the Europe of the Middle Ages. The long and slender shape of the insect’s body, combined with the superstitious belief that it, like the fly—consort of Beelzebub—was in league with the darkest of forces, produced a myth durable enough to make the journey with the colonists to the United States. Today in Iowa, the authors write, “devil’s darning needles sew together the fingers or toes of a person who falls asleep…in Kansas, they may sew up the mouths of scolding women, saucy children…and profane men.”
Dragonflies, of course, do no such thing. In fact, creatures belonging to the order Odonata—Latin for “toothed,” a reference to the chewing mandibles dragonflies share with most other insects—and the infraorder Anisoptera—Latin for “unequal wings,” because dragonflies have broader hindwings than forewings—have no sting, let alone needlepoint. They are perfectly harmless to humans, if not to their prey: smaller insects, including ants, bees, and the mosquitoes that so irritated M’Cook.
I tell you these things today because I spent the morning at Promontory Point, winding my way along the rocky strand where Lake Michigan hits Hyde Park—and, by the by, watching a levitation of dragonflies dart back and forth across the path and wheel between tall grasses. (I could find no consensus on the proper collective noun for dragonflies, if any exists. Mitchell and Lasswell offer dazzle; I went my own way.) Whatever you call them, they were magnificent: swift and glittering and alarmingly unpredictable—I had to duck, once, to get out of the way. So erratic were their flight paths that they seemed almost invulnerable to the greedy swoops of the ring-billed gulls that flew overhead.
I’m not sure which of the hundred or so species of dragonfly known to be seen in Illinois I was looking at. But there must have been at least two distinct kinds dancing in between each others’ wings, because all were fully grown, but some were large and some were small. Dragonflies, like almost all other winged insects, have already gone through their final molt by the time they are able to fly, and so every dragon in the air is an adult.
I saw a flash of blue, though I do not think what I saw was little enough to have been the impossibly wee Elfin Skimmer (Nannothemis bella). And it is a little late now for the Green Darner (Anax junius), a common sight around Chicago in the spring and fall. (The Darner is one of a tiny number of dragonflies that migrate seasonally. Recent study suggests that the most persevering of these creatures may cover round-trip distances as long as 16,000 kilometers. This is, coincidentally, nearly identical to the length of my own annual migration between Chicago and Singapore—a fact that floors me. When I get off that plane, I am bone-tired, dog-tired, dead-tired: but apparently not dragonfly-tired. I am shamed by insect-endurance.)
The other reason I tell you these things today is that the last time I got as close to an Anisopteran as I did this morning, I was in the New Orleans bayou, a year after Katrina. I remember being surprised then by their calm fearlessness: the way they would land on the edges of leaves right there under my nose, and turn their heads, set with eyes as heavy and faceted as precious stones. They let me come close enough to feel the air brush away from their wings as they took off again, and maybe their tranquility came from the sure and certain knowledge that they far outnumbered our curious band of swamp explorers. The coastal plains of Louisiana are dragonfly country. The air there is thick with the sound of their flight.
Which is why it is so hard to think of the way that country has changed over the past six weeks.
I. Oil Prevents Emergence
By the time we see a dragonfly, it has reached the end of its multifarious life cycle. Female dragonflies lay their eggs in or near water, and the nymph and larval stages both exist aquatically. The larvae of some species may spend a few months or as long as several years underwater before crawling above the surface to metamorphose into their final, satin-winged forms.
(I love thinking about this life, by the way—a life so focused on growth and preparation, in which the fulfillment of one’s basic plan for existence is vital, of course, but temporally inconsequential. I imagine myself like this right now, hunkered down, eating and growing and having no idea of what ultimate shape I will take, what satin wings I will have.)
But on the Gulf Coast, oil has flowed into the salt marshes where dragonflies lay their eggs—spread itself like a blanket over their underwater atmosphere. As long as its black covering remains, dragonfly larvae from eggs laid weeks or months or years ago will be unable to split the water’s surface without at once covering themselves in pitch.
II. Oil Looks Better Than Water
Like many other insects, fish, and mammals (though not humans), dragonflies are sensitive to the presence of polarized light. The light receptor cells in their retinas are full of the photoreceptive protein called rhodopsin. So are ours. But in the human eye, rhodopsin molecules within each cell are arranged haphazardly, with their axes running at random angles. As a result, our eyes collect light indiscriminately. We have no way of differentiating scattered light, whose waves vibrate in all directions, from polarized light—in which vibrations have been restricted to a single plane.
In dragonfly eyes, rhodopsin molecules within each light receptor cell are aligned in parallel. That means the molecules preferentially absorb beams of light whose waves are vibrating in the same direction and enter the eye in the same orientation: thus hitting all those neatly arranged rhodopsin molecules at just the angle towards which they collectively lean. In other words, dragonfly eyes are especially greedy for polarized light. And since large, flat bodies of water like ponds, lakes, and oceans polarize light as they reflect it, that’s a pretty helpful attribute for an insect that hunts, mates, and lay its eggs over water.
Except water isn’t the only thing that reflects polarized light. Not by a long shot. Dark-colored cars do it. Glossy black tombstones do it. Both have been shown to confuse insects like dragonflies, which often choose to mate above such objects instead of above water, and even attempt to lay their eggs on these strange, inhospitable surfaces.
And then there is crude oil. Thick, black, shiny crude oil, the kind covering vast swathes of the Gulf of Mexico at the moment. In the late 1990s, a group of Hungarian scientists found themselves intrigued by the odd behavior of dragonflies that hovered and mated around the shiny black surface of the open-air waste oil reservoir in Budapest. By comparing the number of dragonflies that were caught in traps containing plain water, salad oil, and crude oil, the researchers convincingly demonstrated that the glittering creatures “can be deceived by and attracted to crude and waste oil.” In fact, their results suggested dragonflies actually prefer crude oil to water, probably because oil more strongly polarizes light.
On the Gulf Coast, then, it seems more than likely that as we speak, dragonflies are taking oil for water.
We are oiling the devil’s darning needle—just when it would, perhaps, do very well to sew together our fingers and toes.
Photo: Gerald Herbert/AP
June 3rd, 2010 | Meera
The so-called goat-sucker lives on mountains; it is a little larger than the owsel, and less than the cuckoo; it lays two eggs, or three at the most, and is of a sluggish disposition. It flies up to the she-goat and sucks its milk, from which habit it derives its name; it is said that, after it has sucked the teat of the animal, the teat dries up and the animal goes blind. It is dim-sighted in the day-time, but sees well enough by night.
—Aristotle, “The History of Animals,” c. 350 B.C.
The Whip-poor-will is a bird of many distinctions.
For one, it has a marvelously ridiculous common name, supposedly derived from its insistent three-note call, which resounds through the forests of the eastern United States all through the night. (Listen to that recording, will you? As you know, I adore both birders and namers of birds, but transliterating the exquisitely alien trills and whistles of birdsong into syllables we can spell and pronounce does little but highlight the paucity of human language when compared to its avian counterpart.)
The Whip-poor-will also has a marvelously eerie scientific name: Caprimulgus vociferus, literally “noisy goatsucker.” Unlike the mythic Chupacabra, birds of the genus Caprimulgus, to which the common nighthawk also belongs, were not believed to drain the blood of goats, but to drink their milk instead. This is, if you ask me, a more palatable proposition: but it is equally fictitious. Aristotle himself—an august thinker, to be sure, but wrong about so very many things—thought this to be true.
The story may have arisen because of the birds’ incredibly wide bills, which apparently looked to ancient observers as if they would be very useful for sucking at goat teats. In fact, what those bills are suited for is gaping open in flight and snatching up large insects, which are what make up the majority of the Caprimulgus diet.
In sum, the Whip-poor-will is a medium-sized, ground-nesting, nocturnal bird with beautiful mottled plumage consisting of a complex pattern of browns, grays, blacks, and whites: a confusion of earthy colors that makes it almost invisible when still. And it is very, very beautiful.
I can tell you quite confidently just how soft that pretty plumage is—it is as downy as an owl’s—because I spent an hour and a half skinning a lovely little female Whip-poor-will this morning in the Field Museum’s bird prep lab. The number on her tag began with the initials “FC,” which means she was collected as a wounded bird by the Flint Creek Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Northerly Island, Chicago, and unfortunately didn’t make it. In fact, as I was handling her I noticed that her right humerus was broken, probably the injury that brought her to Flint Creek.
Here she is. Dave, the collections manager in the Bird Division, was very happy to have her as a study skin; I don’t think we see too many Whips in the lab.
June 1st, 2010 | Meera
I realize how determinedly morbid this is going to sound after telling you not three weeks ago that I am obsessed with death, but at 7 o’clock this morning I got down on my hands and knees in the bathroom to pull the stiffened body of a dead cat out from underneath my claw foot tub, and at 5 o’clock this evening those same two hands of mine drew the cranium and jaw bones of a raccoon, tenderly packed in bubble wrap and Styrofoam, from the recesses of a box that arrived in the mail.
But hey, sometimes that’s just the way your day turns out.
The expired cat was not, I hasten to add, my cat; if it had been I would be in no state to write these words. As it was I slept poorly last night, knowing the poor thing was just on the other side of the bedroom wall and likely close to death. My dreams were full of it. In life, the cat was a small, black, medium-haired beastie, with egg-yolk yellow eyes and a burbling purr (cats purr when stressed or traumatized, not just when content). In death, those eyes, I noticed, were open: their pupils—like those of human corpses—fixed and slightly dilated. When in its prime it was undoubtedly a pretty little thing.
Ross and I picked up the cat yesterday evening about two blocks from our apartment. It was drenched to the bone and without visible signs of injury, but moving slowly and with an almost drunken gracelessless very uncharacteristic of a feline. We thought it might have fallen out of a window or been hit by a car, and brought it into our home with the hope that the creature would survive the night and we could take it to the nearest vet as soon as it opened today—but sadly, our best efforts were in vain.
The cat had mustered what little strength it had in order to crawl underneath the tub before it died, probably because it felt a little safer in that narrow, constricted space. It was there in the morning when we went in to check on it, and if there had been any doubt about its expired status, a hand reached out to touch it made a definitive answer immediately apparent from two things: coolness and rigidity.
The average core body temperature of a cat is about three degrees higher than the average core body temperature of a human, or about 102°F. If a cat has ever sat on your lap, you already know this. A living cat is a thing of reliable warmth. Mine, for instance, is a blanket that provides snug comfort in winter and transforms into a heavy irritation in summer. This cat was cool, though not cold, to the touch.
In death, the systems that the body relies on to regulate its temperature start to fail.The rapid contraction and expansion of the muscles that produce a warming shiver can no longer take place; nor can the vasoconstriction (tightening of the blood vessels) that keeps heat from escaping from the skin, or the chemical reactions that can transform fat directly into heat in our cells. Cold as death, they say. I can tell you that what they say is true.
If I had had the means or the inclination (macabre even for me) to take its temperature, I might have been able to determine the approximate time at which this cat crossed the border between life and death. To do this I could have used the knowledge that the average mammalian corpse cools at a rate of about 1.5°F per hour, although it would have been difficult to come to a precise estimation. Algor mortis (Latin for “the coolness of death;” and death is, I fear, a cool customer) might have been affected by the size of the cat, the amount of insulation it carried on its slight frame, the ambient temperature in my bathroom and that of the tile on which it was resting, as well as other factors.
Still, a calculation could have been made. It is possible, for instance, that I could have somehow aligned the cat’s hour of death with one or another of the times in which it had wandered through my fitful sleep in the form of a dream-black-cat, healthy and mewling and full of vigor. If I were of a soul-believing bent, that might have been comforting.
But even if the cat had somehow managed to retain a good deal of its body heat after its death, the rigidity of its body would have told me it was gone, and had been for some hours. Rigor mortis (Latin for “the stiffness of death;” and death is, I fear, an inflexible wretch) is a tightening of the muscles that sets in in small mammals, like cats, within a couple of hours of the end. Apparently, the use of the term stiff to refer to a corpse dates back to the very beginning of the 13th century—so clearly has the phenomenon of rigor mortis been associated with death, and for so long.
What causes this stiffness is a sequence of chemical events that is, frankly, marvelous. (I think so, anyway.) Here’s how it goes. Normally, muscles contract because they’ve received a signal in the form of a nerve impulse from the brain. When that impulse reaches a muscle cell, it triggers the release of a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine. Acetylcholine plugs itself into receptors on the surface of the cell, opening channels through which sodium ions enter. The sodium, in turn, causes a flood of calcium ions to be released within the muscle cells. Finally, the calcium ions enable two kinds of muscle fibers—actin and myosin—to bind together and cause the muscle as a whole to contract. In order to release that contraction, an infusion of energy is required to push out the calcium ions and return the muscle fibers to their relaxed positions.
It’s all a beautifully rehearsed and executed electrochemical relay race that results in tight, or rigid muscles. (Want to set it in motion right now? Clench your fist. There. Nerve impulse—acetylcholine—sodium—calcium—actin/myosin—clench. If you squeeze your eyes tight, you can tell yourself that you almost feel those microscopic channels opening and closing. You’ll be lying, but it’s a beguiling notion.)
After death, accumulated calcium ions tend to leak across the cell membrane into muscle fibers, causing a contraction that cannot be released because the cell is no longer generating energy. And so: Stiff as a board, they say.
I can tell you that what they say is true. By the time we looked in on our sweet, unfortunate stray in the morning, its limbs had hardened to the point where it was difficult to draw from its hiding place. Ross had to kneel beside the tub and push gently on its back legs, while I pulled gently on the scruff of its neck, to get it out. If I had held the animal up by its torso, which I did not, its legs would not have hung loose and sweetly heavy like those of my living, breathing cat. They would have remained as they were: curled around its body like armor.
(If I had waited several more hours, though, loose they would have come. Rigor mortis dissipates as decomposition sets in, breaking down muscle tissue and releasing the contracted fibers.)
I could see, as he pushed and I pulled, that Ross was a little red-eyed and sniffly to see the creature in what must have seemed, to him, a strange and unnatural state. I, on the other hand, had grieved the night before. It was much more difficult for me to witness the cat as it was before death, its hot breath coming in and going out in ragged pants and its body so lacking in strength and nimbleness, as if it had forgotten how to move its four paws. Life, as the Buddha says, is suffering.
But this morning as I lifted the limbs that had once lent it the lucky poise of nine lives and felt how they had gone hard and inflexible, it was clear that the cat had ceased to be a suffering being and become, instead, a body. Its very stiffness protected me from pity, providing a hard, unassailable demarcation between life and death. For that I am rather grateful, because no matter how interested one is in death, it is no lovely thing to pick up the cadaver of something whose nose you stroked the night before. I am curious, not ghoulish. This cat’s death was both unnecessary and melancholy.
About my adoration for this raccoon skull, on the other hand, I have no excuses. A friend, knowing my predilections, offered to find it for me: and so it was found. And cleaned. And packaged. And sent. And the stiffness of its beautiful bones has a different sort of virtue.