One of my favorite programs is C-SPAN’s Q&A with Brian
Lamb. Last Sunday, Brian’s guest was Christine Montross, an
MD who has written a book called “Body of Work” about her
first year in medical school with emphasis on the dissection of
her cadaver. To me this was not a subject designed to lift up
one’s spirits, especially since my wife is still in rehab after
undergoing “same day” back surgery two weeks ago. However,
my wife said she would have been quite interested in the
program inasmuch as she dissected her own cadaver when she
was in nursing school.
The next day, I thought I’d find some humor in an article by
Richard Conniff titled “What’s Behind a Smile?” in the August
Smithsonian magazine. What I found was more in line with the
cadaver bit. It seems that the pioneer in the science of the smile
was Guillaume Duchenne, a Paris physician who, in the 1840s,
was treating a patient with a facial problem. Duchenne found
that applying an electric current to certain areas of the patient’s
face caused the muscle underneath to contract sharply. The good
doctor wanted to pursue studies on this effect but found that his
subjects couldn’t take the pain associated with passing current
through their faces.
Duchenne, being in France, came up with the solution. He
continued his studies using the byproducts of the guillotine –
freshly severed heads! By applying the electrodes to different
areas of the faces of the deceased, he found that he could
simulate various familiar expressions, including the smile. I may
return to the science of the smile in some later column but first I
have to get a vision of grinning body-less heads out of my mind.
I did smile when I saw an article by Richard Read, in one of last
week’s Star-Ledgers, titled “Scientist sticks to his gecko work”.
Sure enough, there was a picture of Kellar Autumn and his
colleagues staring intently at a foot-long Tokay gecko. Autumn
is the guy we’ve discussed a number of times who has led the
effort to determine the secret of the gecko’s sticky feet.
Unfortunately, the picture was not sufficiently sharp for me to
find the gecko’s ear and confirm or refute my grandchildrens’
assertion that you can look in one ear and see out the other side.
My friend Dan in Hawaii has tried looking at small geckos and
also has been unsuccessful in finding the ear. Stay tuned – we
shall not abandon the quest.
I was going to write more about the smile or the gecko but
yesterday morning, while eating breakfast, I saw something that
did make me smile. It was also something I had never seen
before. We have rhododendrons outside our breakfast room
window and have a mulch of cedar and/or pine covering the area.
There’s a plethora of chipmunks and squirrels that frequent our
yard. When I looked out I noticed a long white stem of a
mushroom missing its cap. The stem was about a quarter of an
inch in diameter and about 4 or 5 inches in height.
Well, this squirrel appeared and went right to the stem, lifted it
out of the ground, held it in its paws and devoured the whole
stem like it was eating a stalk of celery, with obvious relish.
When it had finished the stem, the squirrel vigorously scooped
out the remaining bit of mushroom root and ate that. I can’t
recall whether I’ve ever seen a squirrel eat a mushroom but I’ve
certainly never seen what happened next.
For perhaps two or three minutes, the squirrel engaged in what I
would call a frenzy of cavorting. It seemed as though it was
either celebrating the delicious treat or it had become possessed
by something in the mushroom. It began digging furiously in the
mulch, rolling around in it on its back, with all kinds of
contortions and even jumped into the air about two feet, turning
in midair and landing on its back. After all these gymnastics, the
squirrel suddenly flattened itself and, dragging its butt, walked
slowly out into the yard, where another squirrel appeared and the
usual chase was on. I would certainly be interested to hear if
anyone else has observed such squirrelly behavior.
Oh, I almost forgot. There was a bit of humor in the cadaver
story. The cadaver that Montross dissected was that of an 81-
year-old woman who turned out not to have a bellybutton! The
med students cogitated on what they should call the cadaver and
the natural choice was “Eve”! Think about it.
Note: If my wife comes home this week as planned, I will be
quite busy in the caregiving mode and there will be no column
Allen F. Bortrum