Tuesday, January 6, 2015
Knowing What You "See" and Seeing What You "Know"
As a human looking at this video these are stunningly beautiful, very graceful creatures. The comb jellies have what look like running lights in rainbow colors. But, if you were a creature of the sea, the beauty of these jellies would likely be lost on you; you'd see a predator hunting you down for dinner. If you enter the ocean water around Australia, Thailand, and other areas you might encounter a creature that looks as if it would be a close relative- it is translucent and appears jelly like- the box jelly. These particular jellyfish are potentially one of the most lethal creatures on the planet, the toxins capable of killing a full grown human in less than five minutes. Oddly, a relative of this jellyfish, the Turritopsis dohrnii, is thought to hold the secrets of immortality (depending on how you define the word); this jellyfish if it "dies" can revert to its "infant" stage and grow back up to a full grown jellyfish. Jellyfish and comb jellies lend themselves to a little thinking about how we see things and what we know.
Let's go back to the video of beautiful comb jellies appearing to generate rainbow lights. The lights are actually refracted light, not self-generated. The "combs" up and down the sides of these jellies are small cilia which help propel them through the water and appear to flash rainbow lights due to the scattering of an outside source of light (much like raindrops creating the appearance of a rainbow.) Of course, if one was an interesting meal to a jelly, the beauty we humans see would be vastly over-rated; comb jellies would "look" like a predator.
Moving from the lovely comb jellies to the box jellies, we see a similar looking creature, but the box jelly (certain varieties) are very toxic whereas comb jellies have no stinging apparatus. Although box jellyfish appear to the human eye to be translucent ocean dwellers very similar to the comb jelly, they belong to two different phyla; their histories and life cycles are quite different. As you may recall, phyla differentiation is the difference between mollusks and mammals. Further, Cubozoans (box jellies) have complex eyes. They "see." They do not have brains however, so considering the way we humans are believed to be able to "see" how does a jellyfish manage to detect light, chemicals, and sense movement without a brain? Interesting! And although these creatures have killed full grown men in minutes with their toxic stings, some people have survived after being stung. Sadly, I have a friend whose daughter lost her fiancé off the coast of Thailand in just such a way. But I have read reports of others who have suffered, but survived, including the record setting long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad and small children. How can that happen?
While we "see" jellyfish as potentially deadly, there is a jellyfish that may hold the secret to immortality. In spite of humans "knowing" that everything dies and nothing can live forever, this jellyfish has been observed going from "dead" back to "infancy" and starting over. According to the NY Times article by Nathaniel Rich, the Turritopsis dohrnii when stabbed to "death" reverts back to its infancy and begins again. The article is well worth reading, especially toward the end, for its insights. These jellyfish have also been observed when ill reverting back to infancy stage and beginning again. Whether one calls this immortality may be moot; no one is likely to dispute that it's an amazing feat and one which will enlighten those humans willing to "see" the potential.
What if we stepped back for a moment each time we think we know something? So many things we know are based on what we see. Yet it is clear that so many things we see are not as they seem. The world of oceanic creatures has many examples. The ocean of air world has many more. If we take the time to question what we know, we may find that we see things much more clearly.