Sunday, June 16, 2013

For Father's Day, an excerpt from the Oklahoma book

5. Norman
A quarry has been opened . . . and from it a soft lime is taken for use as fertilizer and chicken feed
—J. J. Galloway and S. G. Wissler
The slightly yellowed pages are bound with a brown-orange heavy card stock cover held together with three brass fasteners that can be slipped through holes then bent back to prevent them from falling out. You can still buy these kinds of binders, and these kinds of fasteners, in college bookstores, but this one was obviously purchased in the 1930s because of the student’s name inside. The course is Zoology 1 lab, section 3, an introduction to animals, mainly invertebrates because most animals are invertebrates—clams, oysters, crayfish, earthworms—plus the requisite vertebrate, a frog, of course—and taken during a fall semester. This lab notebook was graded four times. On October 12, it received an A-; on November 8, November 28, and December 22, an A each time. A final grade on the whole notebook was A. Some time between Christmas and three days prior, in 1932, someone studied this notebook very carefully and gave it the highest grade possible.
There are no obvious erasure marks on any of the drawings in this notebook. The lines are all exceedingly fine, with no trace of wobble, no smudge, and no indication—as is so often the case with students’ pencil sketches—that the artist was plagued by any sense of uncertainty. He knew exactly how a frog’s liver lay exposed, exactly how a starfish ovary looked, laid out from the clean cut along an ambulacral groove, for these pictures were obviously made directly from specimens. The number five drawing pencil was sharpened with a knife until the lead lay exposed, bare, for a half inch. The lead itself was then filed to a needle-like point, probably with an emery board. He drew until the lead was somewhat dull, until the line itself stimulated some sense of imperfection, or violated intent, when it was again filed to its characteristic point. He must have owned an eraser; it’s just not obvious that he ever used it in his depictions of form. Nor is there evidence in this archival set of drawings that the artist even considered the possibility that these designs he was reproducing so faithfully, using only his eyes and hands, were handiwork of a supernatural intelligence.
We do have some indication, however, that his pencil habits were probably formed early because they were so completely ingrained. Cleaning out what remains of John Janovy’s drawing equipment, more than thirty years after his death, I find dozens of pencils, the wood shaved, the lead exposed and filed to a needle point, in all kinds of colors and degrees of hardness. I envision him shaving and sharpening these pencils, carefully, exactly, over a wastebasket, all by himself, alone in an office, no telephone, no radio, no noise whatsoever except the muffled sound of traffic seven floors below, to distract a petroleum geologist from his preparation of an instrument to draw a line on a piece of paper, a line that reveals how convergence of natural processes leads to the production of those magic resources that fuel tanks, sending them in a cloud of dust across some desert terrain, or self-propelled howitzers dug in, lined up, covered with camouflage netting, recoiling with their own internal explosions, or P-51 Mustangs screaming across the sky, or jeeps straight out of some Bill Mauldin cartoon. With these finely sharpened pencils, having practiced earlier on frogs and sea stars, he now studies rocks and draws the lines that point to oil.
Some time during the period from 1931 to 1935, he also sits down at a table in front of what is called a “dissecting microscope.” If you are going to carefully cut up a mosquito, taking its wings off, separating its leg joints, and finally pulling out its salivary glands to see if it is infected with some malarial parasite, then you need to do this work under magnification. And if you are going to dissect a core from a mile below a Chambers County, Texas, oil well named Sun Oil #4 in search of fossil amebas, you must have the same equipment. Jonathan Swift either had such a microscope, or a fertile imagination, for his descriptions of the Brobdingnabians’ skin as recorded by Gulliver on his travels among the giants is remarkably close to what you see beneath the lenses, namely your own fingers and nails magnified a couple of dozen times, holding tiny needles stuck in a wooden handle, as you begin your dissection of an insect or a piece of limestone. Ridges, fingernail cracks, hanging cuticle, a subtle array of human skin colors to challenge all but the most exquisitely talented Renaissance painters, all appear under magnification. ‘I do not look the same under this lens,’ you think, ‘as I look in the mirror.’ Eyes to the microscope, you realize that this is what you would look like to a beetle, if an insect could see as clearly as J. Swift. The lens is both literal and metaphorical; your magnified finger tells you something about yourself that you may not want to know.
But John Janovy leaves no record of what his cuticle looked like in 1933; no journal entries record his introspective lapses, if there were any. Instead, we have the results of his labor—slides of fossil amebas and ostracods, crustaceans no larger than the amebas, all comprising data that if you know the rest of this geologist, you can interpret easily as a lesson about how the world operates. Like a photograph from the 1930s, hidden in not-quite-forgotten files while the decades slipped away, or drawings from an undergraduate’s laboratory notebook, these specimens are tangible evidence for a past, which in turn was a boundary condition for one tiny component of life on Earth. The past as boundary condition is a fundamental property of change directed either by choice, as in the case of individual humans, or by contingency, as in the case of evolving populations, species, and often nations. Was this lesson about boundary conditions the one he was being taught in the early 1930, by some professor who’d assigned the task, or is it one being taught, as I look at these slides seventy years later, on a daily basis now that I’ve learned to see design as constraint?
It’s easy to answer “yes” to both those possibilities. The slides are labeled with incomplete, thus tantalizing, text such as Sun Oil #4 Chambers Barbers Hill 5075-5093 Het zone—indicating a thin layer of limestone that begins 5075 feet beneath Houston and is characterized so strongly by a single genus of ameba—Heterostegina—that it’s commonly known among those learning how to search for oil as the “Het zone.” What kind of upheaval events had our planet experienced between the Oligocene interment of a shell barely visible to the unaided eye and its retrieval, thirty million years later, by an American college student who saw this activity as essential training if one has chosen finding petroleum as a profession? The answer is simple: whatever events led to the formation of crude oil a mile below Houston. And central to our understanding of this process linking past to future is shape—morphology, in the scientific vernacular—and a human’s ability to interpret such shape, put the image into a context built from existing knowledge, and derive from the beast in its setting a decision that leads to oil. So here we have the meaning of visual literacy. We see the world, we interpret the vision—understanding the constraints and opportunities—and then we infer process; then predict future and, if we can convince someone to give us enough money, we act on our predictions. Did John know, back in 1933, he was both learning and preserving, thus passing on, this lesson about how to make a living from the natural world? I doubt it, but want to believe the answer to this question, too, is “yes.”
If there is any larger reason for studying the design of ameba shells, it is the broad applicability of this principle: details and settings may vary, but historical processes tend to be universal, rather like physical laws. Thus by resurrecting one Oklahoma geologist’s formative experiences we are reminded of those two basic views of the future, each demanding a different strategy for arriving in that distant region: there is one, and we must find our place in it, or, conversely, there is none and we must therefore build it. John Janovy was clearly of the latter mind. Evolutionary principles are integral to this vision of what lies ahead. And among the specimens on a single slide, retrieved from a dusty shoebox in a garage closet nearly half a century after it was made, are the examples that teach us creativity. How do amebas, over time, convert a single hollow calcareous chamber into a diverse array of containers, each with multiple chambers, assemblages that defy understanding without their development revealed? Again, the answer is easy to provide but difficult to make happen: play all those possible variations on a theme and see which ones work. In this case, however, amebas have engaged, over the previous thirty million years, in the “evolutionary play upon the ecological stage”—to paraphrase G. Evelyn Hutchinson’s famous and compelling metaphor.
The theme of these amebas is a series of chambers, each somewhat larger than the preceding one, secreted by a single-celled eukaryotic organism, i.e., a cell with a well-formed nucleus bounded by membranes and containing the instructions, written in DNA, needed to build a design from calcium carbonate and silicon. The chambers are connected to one another, and it is tempting to attribute their increasing size to “need;” i.e., as it grows, the ameba gets larger, thus “needs” a bigger place in which to live, a larger room for protection. That is a human interpretation of causality imposed on a single cell floating in the ocean, catching prey with sheets of filamentous cytoplasm spread out in a microscopic net. There is absolutely no way to assess the “needs” of amebas except in biochemical terms: a mixture of pre-formed carbohydrates, amino acids, vitamins, and inorganic minerals. At this level, the “needs” of an ameba are equal to the “needs” of a tiger or of the neighbor children playing in a yard across the street. They need food and water and time, and at the molecular level, “food” is about the same regardless of whether you catch it in the ocean, or in the jungle, or buy it at Wall Mart.
The idea of growth being coupled with a continuing “need” for protection and chambers of increasing size—a succession of rooms of one’s own—is a concept we impose on a part of nature we do not know well, if at all. The ancient shells beneath John’s microscope, however, remind us that although the designs could be, and probably are, tightly coupled to the amebas’ existence, they also are as diverse as the choices by which humans build their dwellings. Thus we have the concept of variations on this theme, and indeed, on any theme, regardless of whether we understand the underlying causality. In the case of marine amebas, the themes are as follows, although they are much better illustrated than described: a linear series of chambers, increasing in size; two linear series attached, and increasing in size in phase, a coiled set of chambers reminiscent of a Nautilus shell, an agglomeration of globular chambers, grape cluster-like, but again with chambers of increasing size, a plan in which succeeding chambers surround and overgrow their existing predecessors, in effect hiding what’s happened before, to name but a few of the common variations. If John Janovy taught his son anything as a result of this posthumous interaction with his college lab specimens, it’s to be patient with, even appreciative of, extreme diversity. Homogeneity is boring; heterogeneity is interesting, and microscopic invertebrates are extremely heterogeneous. That is the take home lesson that survives through the decades when a college kid decides to, or is allowed to, keep his amebas and eventually give them to his own child.
These ocean-dwelling amebas thus provide an easy step into the realm of shape, both literal—the shape of a salt dome, the shape of a purse, the shape of a woman’s body—and metaphorical—the shape of the future. That is, we are ready to examine the matter of design in its most general sense, i.e., the sense that we suspect occupied John’s mind even as a college student, his eyes glued to the oculars and his magnified fingers sorting through the dust for fossils. Thus the phrase “these are but a few of the common variations” could apply easily to all facets of human existence—war, sex, politics, agriculture, medicine, financial transactions, paintings of nudes, landscape photographs, basketball games, marriages and other seemingly committed relationships, diseases, boy-meets-girl (boy-meets-boy; girl-meets-girl) fiction, murder, unwanted pregnancy, and the decision-making behavior of elected officials or others with power over the common good. Like a growing young individual Heterostegina reticulata, adrift in prehistoric oceans that would eventually become known as the Mediterranean Sea, the “house” you build is the “house” you live in, and with. The shape of that ameba’s house is, however, inherited, at least within limits; but the issue for John at his microscope is whether the shape of whatever house he intends to build, within the house built for him by the decisions of powerful men of his time, must be as fixed as a set of genes would dictate.
(JJJr’s note: the “powerful men of his time” included Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill).

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