I Have A Cold!
Copyright 2002 by Jon Bondy, All Rights Reserved.
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Jon Bondy, email@example.com
I have a cold. I can hear a groan of boredom. A woman with three young kids at home thinks “I have a cold every other week”. Well, I have colds about once a year, so this is an event for me. Something to muse about. It started with a vaguely sore throat, then obvious post nasal drip, then body aches and lassitude. This morning the inevitable descent into my chest began. Callers will not recognize my voice on the phone for the next few days.
Why will the course of this illness be so inevitable during the next week? I'm sure there are good immunological reasons for the length of and nature of the course of a simple cold, but I'm not educated enough to understand them. After going through this same process for over 50 years, I sometimes wonder when my body will get the message, and cut to the chase. Why should a cold last more than a few hours, or perhaps a day?
But, of course, evolution does not react in 50 years, 500 years, or even 5,000 years. Microbes (bacteria and viruses) evolve so rapidly that they run evolutionary rings around our immune systems. Thus, our immune systems must be so general purpose that they can react to virtually anything that the microbes throw at us. And the general nature of the defense is what makes its reactions so slow.
To a bacterium, if it had a mind, we must seem to be cast in stone. With a life cycle of minutes or hours, no event that seems significant to us would even register with them. That's what a factor of 250,000 will do for you.
I have a reef tank at home, a salt water fish tank full of corals, shrimps, crabs, anemones, and a few fish. The tank runs on three different time scales. When you feed the tank, the fish come out and scurry around at warp speed. As the light cycles throughout the day, the corals open up and then close. But there is an even more subtle time scale that one only becomes aware of after months or years. There are some corals that crawl across the rocks at the rate of perhaps an inch every year. Most people would assume that they are stationary.
So, I began to wonder about other life forms that live so slowly that we might not even be aware that they are “alive”. Or, to put it another way, how quickly does something have to live before we think it is alive? What are we missing?
Many corals are symbiotes. They contain symbiotic algae which convert sunlight into sugars using photosynthesis. The corals benefit by using excess sugars as food, and the algae benefit by having a safe home. The corals will actually die if they do not receive enough sunlight.
Some people believe that the entire surface of the earth constitutes a single living organism, with the plants, animals, and even the weather and ocean currents interacting to produce a single, stable entity.
Could there be patterns of behavior that run so much faster than we do, or so much slower, that we are unaware that these other life forms exist? Perhaps en entire evolution occurs in sun plasma as it races away from the surface of the sun. If you're curious, read Robert Forward's science fiction story “Dragon's Egg”about life on the surface of a neutron star.