In a small blue book, biologist John Tyler Bonner puts forth big ideas about the pivotal role size plans for every creature in every part of the universe. Bonner, the George M. Moffett Professor Emeritus of Biology at Princeton University, uses everything from charts and pen and ink drawings to fairy tales to illustrate his points in this charming, readable volume.
Bonner talks about his new book on Tuesday, November 28, at 7 p.m. at the Princeton University Store. For more information, visit www.pustore.com and click on “author events.”Here is an excerpt from the book, published by the Princeton University Press.
By John Tyler Bonner
It is only natural that we should measure everything in the world around us in terms of our own size. An elephant is bigger than we are, and a mouse is smaller. Some years ago, Time-Life was publishing a series of illustrated books on various subjects, and they called me up to ask for advice on a book they were doing on the general subject of growth — would I please come in to New York to discuss the matter with their editors, for they had numerous questions they wanted to ask an interested biologist.
I no longer remember what those questions were, but at the end of our conference they said they were having difficulty thinking of a suitable photograph for the cover of the book. I thought about it as they were talking, and suggested they should have the large open hand of a man and in his palm have the hand of an infant. They did not seem very enthusiastic about the idea, but when they sent me the finished book, that was exactly what they had on the cover. We see and are conscious of the size of everything that surrounds us, whether it is smaller or larger, and nothing makes the point more clearly than the growth of children. Who has not remarked upon seeing — after an absence — the child of a friend or family, “My, you are so much taller than when I saw you last.”
Once I visited Louis Pasteur’s house outside of Paris, and one of the doorways still had pencil marks recording the annual growth of his children, something that will sound familiar to everyone. Either consciously or, because it is so much part of our natures, unconsciously, we are forever taking note of the size of things and gauging any increase or decrease.
Our world is the world we see with our naked eyes, and that is what we use for our everyday measuring stick. We are also aware that there are worlds that are larger and smaller than we can see in our normal existence — in fact, how to see the things above and below our vision was among the great discoveries in our history. The telescope was one of the profound technical advances in our civilization. The first to see huge, distant bodies was Galileo, who in the 17th century devised an improved way to put lenses together to greatly magnify the heavenly planets and stars. Following this discovery of great importance and consequence, there has been a continuous improvement in telescopes to explore the sky. Today we have the Hubble (and similar) telescopes carried by a satellite orbiting the earth, which not only has an enormously powerful telescope, but it can operate free of the optical disturbances created by the earth’s atmosphere. The universe is unimaginably large, yet with this tool we are learning things about it that are totally beyond the reach of unaided human eyes.
The microworld is too small for us to see without help. That help first came in the 17th century when Anton van Leeuwenhoek ground very small lenses to greatly magnify objects. He not only invented the microscope, but he went on to illuminate a whole world that had never before been known to exist. He described for the first time all sorts of microscopic animals and plants that live in ponds and rain barrels: he even, for the first time, described bacteria, which are exceedingly small. He was the discoverer of spermatozoa in human semen, although it was not until much later that their nature was correctly understood. The technical advances in microscopes over the years has been no less remarkable than those of telescopes; their complexity and their power bears little resemblance to the tiny lenses ground out by van Leeuwenhoek many years ago.
It has often struck me that, conscious as we are of our own size and of those around us, we do not ordinarily think that once we were microscopic. It is possible to believe that at one time we were infants, and there are all those old family photographs to prove it. It is even possible to imagine that earlier we were a fetus, but the idea that we were once a microscopic, single cell — a fertilized egg — is not something that ordinarily crosses our mind. In our own growth we go from the world of van Leeuwenhoek to the world we see around us every day. Perhaps if we were to have eyes and senses and a memory at that single cell stage of our life — an absurd possibility — we would look at the world differently, for our sense of size does not come to us until we are a small child. (In any event, an egg does not have much to look at in the darkness of a Fallopian tube.)
One of my early recollections is being so small that I could not reach a light switch on the wall and had to get help from some giant adult. I had a psychologist friend who wanted to apply for a grant to build a huge room with gigantic furniture exactly as a small child would see it, and study the effect it might have on an adult who reenters his childhood world. The university committee that had to pass on research done on human subjects turned the request down: the effect might be too dangerous for the human psyche!
Clearly children are especially conscious of their size as they are surrounded by huge adults. This is reflected in fairy stones and children’s tales. A good example is Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, where Alice keeps changing her size to go down rabbit burrows and back to her normal large self. She begins with the bottle which says “Drink Me” and shrivels to a size that allows her to join the underground world. Later the hookah-smoking caterpillar puts her on to a magic mushroom: a bite from one side makes her larger, and a bite from the other smaller. What a perfect child’s dream.
She worries that she will shrink to nothing, which has special resonance for me. When I was a very small boy I had a terrifying recurrent nightmare that I would enter a room with adults and I would instantly shrink to something minute, like an untied balloon letting out its air. I never knew my final size — I always woke up shrieking. Perhaps that was the first spark of an early interest in the role of size in biology, a subject that has pursued me these many years.