Steve Mirsky
Scientific American
1 New York Plaza
Suite 4500
New York, NY 10004-1562

Your article (Steve Mirsky “A look back at the man who didn’t quite walk on water” Scientific American vol. 313 no. 6 December 2015 page 82) is, as always, delightful.  There is another approach; I once could walk on water as surely as a fly walks on the ceiling. 

I know it’s not current science, but somewhere in my heart I think our ancestors were aquatic.  Desmond Morris in The Naked Ape suggested as much, and I found it charming.  One of his arguments in favor was our relative lack of body hair, and in the absence of any other good explanation I find it compelling.  Then there are the number of ways we protect our airway.  The nose can be closed with a pinch or with the soft palate; the mouth closes at the lips, strains at the teeth, is stopped by the tongue in more than one place, and the combined column is stopped by the vocal cords and at least at one level above them.  By contrast a dolphin has just one sphincter, so vulnerable that the most common cause of demise is pneumonia. 

I add to the usual armamentarium the ability to stop my nostrils with my upper lip.  My father could do it, so there must be a dugong in the family tree.  I know not how common the ability is.  It may have saved my life, since I spent a lot of my childhood in warm Florida lake water, now known to harbor dangerous amebas. 

Given flippers, a person is a reasonably capable swimmer.  The famous Lucy had disproportionately large feet.  She would have been a good swimmer.  In fact kicking is very effective in swimming.  My swimming coach once said in awed tone that an olympic swimmer could go the length of an olympic pool in ten strokes of the arms.  Being as I was kind of sweet on her, I said, “I can do that.”  We were in an olympic pool for the lesson.  I started out with one stroke and then froze one arm forward while the other sculled like mad, feet kicking steadily.  When I was out of breath I took just one stroke to breathe and then repeated.  Sure enough, after ten breaths I had gone the distance, gasping but alive.  My time surprised even me.  I don’t think she liked me as much after that; I should have stuck with the pity thing.

So back to the fly.  When the fly walks on the ceiling, it is not above the ceiling.  It is upside down below the ceiling with its feet touching the surface.  You see where this is going.  Another time when I was showing off for a girl (I never learn) I went to the proper depth and turned upside down with my hands on the bottom and my feet on the surface.  I had the advantage, now lost to facial hair, of being able to be upside down and not get water up my nose.  I was also so lean that I sank, an advantage now lost to flab.  So I progressed across the – much smaller – pool swinging my arms and legs as one naturally does while walking. 

I’ve never known anybody to be interested.  Certainly she was not.  But you did raise the issue.

All the best, and keep the good fun coming,

M. Linton Herbert MD

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