Here's Something You Don't Want To Know

Well, don’t say I didn’t warn you. First, look at this graphic.

It’s an 80-year-old illustration showing the largest animals and plants in the world.  The ugly little secret is item no. 10, that totally unnoticeable line in the middle of the picture just below the dinosaur and the snake.

All you have to do is click on the page and the image will turn interactive and you can find out what that is. (Psst! There’s a spoiler a couple of paragraphs down.)

The image first appeared in H.G. Wells, J.S. Huxley and G. P. Well’s book "The Science of Life", published in 1931.  One of the greatest biologists in the world, John Tyler Bonner (of Princeton) saw this as a little boy and still has it handy. He republished it in his landmark little book, "Why Size Matters".  You should browse for yourself.

I like how the authors suggest scale. Inside the blue whale on the top of the page standing next to an elephant, then again at the base of the giant Sequoia,  you will find a man and a dog. They represent sizes that you know well to help you see how big these life forms are.

There’s a third man-and-dog just below item no. 10… which is the item that got my attention. Wells, Huxley and Wells say that’s a tapeworm (here comes the spoiler) found inside a human being!

Could it be our intestines are so convoluted that an animal can wiggle inside us and grow and grow and grow and  become as long as a dinosaur? Show this to an 8 year old and you’ve created a nightmare that will last for decades.

When I sent this story to our super-duper fact-checking team of Maggie Starbard and Whitney Wyckoff (We check everybody! Even H.G. Wells!), the longest human-dwelling  tapeworm they could find in the science journals, Diphyllobothrium latum, was 40 feet long. Not a pretty notion, but nothing to sniff at; that’s roughly half a Brontosaurus in your intestines. Where Huxley and Wells got their data we don’t know. They’re dead.

However, when Whitney and Maggie looked further, they discovered Hexagonoporus, also a tapeworm, which grows inside whales.

Hexagonoporus, you will be horrified to learn (if you are a whale) can grow to a 100 feet, the length of our dinosaur… AND maybe even BEYOND!

By the way, you may notice things look a little different around here.

We're renovating. New name, more posts and lots to look at. We're calling this space Krulwich Wonders….

A sketch of Robert Krulwich on his back, staring at the stars.
Robert Krulwich/NPR

I like the word "wonder." One of the greatest of all science writers, Lewis Thomas liked it, too. He wrote:

"Wonder is a word to wonder about. It contains a mixture of messages: something marvelous and miraculous, surprising, raising unanswerable questions about itself, making the observer wonder, even raising skeptical questions like, 'I wonder about that'."

So, bowing deeply to Lewis Thomas, it seems to me that near the heart of wonder is the simple act of noticing. I plan to pause, look, and notice the little wonders that catch my eye. Because there are a lot of people who do this very well, I'm going to follow the better noticers, the great field scientists, the best artists, photographers, journalists and peer over their shoulders to notice what they have noticed.

Biologist (and writer)  Bernd Heinrich in his book "A Year In The Maine Woods" points out that because we humans are biggish creatures and so much around us is small and delicate (or shy), because we are busy and very into our lives, our minds, our problems, "most of us are like sleepwalkers here." We walk through our yards, our streets, our parks,  through our days and "we notice so little... We see only bits and pieces, and then only if we look very, very close, or for very, very long."

I don't know about you but while I am very, very curious, I don't have a scientist's patience. I can't sit on my haunches and watch for hours to see if a beetle does or doesn't do something someone thought it might do. I'd rather be told. Especially if that beetle is up to something interesting. And definitely if what I'm told makes my eyes widen, my heart race, my face break into a smile. So that's the plan here: We're going to notice things together and all you curious, smiley, wondering people are very very welcome.

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