Sunday 23 Oct 2016

The Mystery of it All
Sjef Frenken

"How is it," asked Jack, "that when we're young, we know everything, and as we learn more and more, we know less and less?"

I said "Jack, that's one of the great mysteries of life."

"Speaking of mysteries," said Jack, "I came across an article the other day about Death Valley National Park. Apparently there's a stretch of flat land where rocks and boulders move on their own, leaving clearly visible tracks. And the strange thing is that individual rocks move in different directions."

I said "Are you pulling my leg?"

"No," said Jack emphatically, "I'm not. This is an honest-to-God mystery."

I said "Come on, there must be an explanation. Surely someone has checked up on it."

"Quite a few scientists have investigated," said Jack, "but so far no one has come up with a definitive explanation. Some scientists have suggested that the soil may contain round grit acting as ball bearings, or something slippery like graphite, and that rain may soften the top layer of earth, and that a strong wind then can move the rocks. But the tracks aren't all in the same direction. Some investigators have suggested that this may depend on the different weight of the rocks, so that only the strongest winds would move the heaviest rocks -- and we're talking here of boulders of up to seven hundred pounds -- and lighter winds would move only the lighter rocks. Another theory suggests that a nearby lake sometimes overflows during the rainy season, and that the water freezes around the rocks and when the ice breaks up, the wind and the wave action can move the rocks embedded in chunks of ice, but that doesn't appear to be the case either."

I said "I'll have to look it up on the Internet."

"I did," said Jack, "and there are quite a few items, but none that gives a satisfactory answer."

I said "I guess there are lots of phenomena for which we don't have an explanation. There are two things that have always puzzled me: how did the first person get the idea to stick a pin into the skin to cure a medical condition ... how did he know where to stick it?"

"I guess," said Jack " he must have known about veins and arteries or the location of nerves."

"That's just it," I said, "acupuncture has nothing to do with nerves and veins, it relies on a totally different system. If you have an Ohm-meter -- a resistance meter -- you can find the acupuncture spots by yourself, and most of them aren't anywhere near blood vessels of neural pathways. Think of it, here's that first amateur acupuncturist with a headache. He says 'I think I'll start jabbing a needle all over my body and see whether if I stick it in a specific spot, that will cure my headache.' And that's just the beginning, it probably takes needles in more than one spot to cure that headache. There are about 400 of these spots, aligned along meridians. So how do you detect these meridians? Not by common sense or by anatomical dissection. One of my sisters once suggested that these meridians may be visible to someone who can see auras, but that only moves the mystery one step back ... explain an aura!"

"You mentioned two things," said Jack, "what's the other?"

I said "Way-finding in the Pacific."

"What's that," said Jack.

"That's the way paddlers in big canoes were able to cross enormous distances between small islands, with nothing to navigate by other than the sun, the moon, the stars, the swell of the sea, the wind, the birds, the currents, and the drifting flotsam and jetsam."

"Well," said Jack, "so how is that different from the Viking voyages to North America?"

I said "It's different in many ways. For one thing take a look at an atlas. The distance between Scandinavia and Scotland or the Faroe Islands, and that between the Faroes and Iceland, and from Iceland Canada is at most 500 miles, and except for the Faroes, these are big land masses. On the other hand the Pacific is dotted with small islands, many of them thousands of miles apart.

For another, the Vikings had two navigating tools: rudimentary devices to measure latitude by the relative position of the Pole Star or the Sun, and the sunstone, a piece of cordierite, that allows the navigator to find the position of the sun even in an overcast sky. Needless to say, they also knew the ways of the sea -- predominant winds and currents at different seasons. From the fact that driftwood came from the west, they presumed that there was land in that direction, although they didn't know how far away it was. Luckily for the first Vikings to head out west, if they didn't find anything, they could head back and be sure to find land in the east, not all that far away.

Not so the Pacific islanders. Sometime in the seventies, a large canoe sailed from Hawaii to Tahiti -- a distance of not 500 but 2500 miles -- without relying on instruments, only on sailors' lore. An incredible achievement. But that's not the real mystery to me. It's that first person again, who said 'Mmm, I think I'll take my canoe out and see what's out there, and hope I can find my way back to this fly-speck of an island.' How did that first person know where to go, and how did he find his way back? And how did he remember all the different sea and sky indicators to tell others how to repeat such voyages? That's a real mystery to me."

Jack had listened attentively, for a change -- I thought. But Jack has his own perspective. He said: "Here are three mysteries that my father told me when I was a youngster: How is it that a chicken drinks water and doesn't pee; that a rabbit doesn't drink water but does pee; and that a goat has a round asshole but shits tetrahedral turds?"

We were back on terra firma.

Sjef Frenken is a renaissance man: thinker, writer, translator and composer of much music. A main interest, he has many, is setting to music the poetry, written for children, during the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Nimble of mind, Sjef is a youthful retiree and a great-grandfather. Mostly he's a content man, which facilitates his relentless multi-media creativity.

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