The Newton Enigma.  A novel by Linton Herbert

Chapter 11 a


Washington DC, October 29, 10 AM


The National Museum of Natural History, part of the Smithsonian Institute, faces the esplanade.  The public space is dedicated to informing and amusing the casual visitors.  The private space is dedicated to developing and maintaining the skills that keep the public part honest.  As at any great museum, the goals immediately directed toward the public are to a degree in tension.  The numbers that came did not always reflect the quality of the experience. 


It is one thing to pass several thousand visitors through the galleries and have them feeling good and exclaiming, “Wasn’t that panda cute.”  And the numbers admitted were to a degree in inverse proportion to the length of time each stayed.  It was a question of throughput or turnover.  The sooner one batch left satisfied, the sooner another could be admitted to the vast but still limited space.  These numbers were easily recorded and tracked, and so far as they went they reflected the popularity and thus the success of the enterprise.


On the other hand there was a lesser number who came and spent the day or days studying in more detail.  They often left emotionally moved, even troubled.  And there was no feasible way to keep track of them.  Yet the institution made every effort to accommodate and encourage them.  It was no good trying to trouble everyone.  Life has enough of trouble.  So the process was like the creation of complex music, weaving together the obvious with the subtle in the same time and space. 


Jon and Hapgood entered like ordinary tourists off Constitution Avenue, under the great classical portico and found themselves gazing with awe at the splendid elephant showcased in the rotunda.  But they had other business.  Jon spoke with a guard, and the two men made their way to the office spaces.


Neil Falkland was waiting in is office.  He greeted them and said he had been told to expect them.


Jon asked, “What is that you’re wearing?  It looks like a headset television.”


“Right in one,” said Falkland.  “It’s a personal heads up display.”


“For the museum?”


“Yes.  It’s experimental now.  We used to have little signs beside the displays explaining as much as we could in the space of a three by five card.  So you would have some people strolling by just looking, and the rest jockeying for a position where they could read the card.  Then of course after the wait they would be disappointed with how little they had learned.


“Then we tried making very big signs to explain more, so you could read any sign from anyplace in the room.  And we put more information into it.  But then the signs dwarfed the displays, and people got stiff necks from staring up at them.


“So we brought in volunteer docents, who would act as tour guides and give a little lecture.  They could also answer questions.  But still everybody got the same spiel, so some would be listening, but most would be looking around because they were either bored or it was over their heads.


“So next we started handing out recorded tours, which is what we do now.  The recorder picks up signals to tell you where you are and give the appropriate information.  You can set the sophistication level so as to hear a recording that is pitched where you like it.  It can describe the time and conditions of a dig and where a fossil or specimen fits into the environment and into the most recent theories, or it can say, ‘Really big fish.’


“So far, so good, but for someone who is getting interested, when they go to a higher sophistication level they hear the first information repeated again.  We wind up frustrating just the people we want to reach just when they begin to open their minds.  Besides they take too much time fiddling with the recorder itself.”


“So that’s like a museum recorder,” said Hapgood.


“Sure, try it on.”


Hapgood put the contraption on his head, and sure enough he could see the room still, but superimposed was text describing the office.  In fact, as he turned his head, the labels on the desk, the windows, a cabinet of African objects and the door stayed with their counterparts.  There was a target in the scene that moved with his head.  All he needed to do was aim at a label, hit a button and a menu opened inviting him to learn more about desks in general, about this desk, about the history of the use of desks going back to the bench or “bank” on which financial deals were carried out.


“Neat,” he said returning the headset.


“It’s too pricy just now, but soon I think this will become a museum standard, like the Greek columns out front.”  Falkland put the HUD on his desk and sat down, waving at a couple of chairs.


Jon began, “We have some questions about genetic diversity.”


“Very important.  Oversold a bit, I imagine, but very important.”


“How oversold.”


“Well we really don’t have any record of a wild population having gone extinct because of inbreeding.  Local populations, there was a study of butterflies in Sweden, are more vulnerable to extinction if they are very small.  Probably inbreeding is a part of it.  But for an actual wild species dying out because they were inbreeding, we haven’t found it.  Of course everybody believes that genetic diversity is a good thing.”


“What about social insects, bees and termites and ants.  The queen lays all the eggs.”




“And the new queen mates only with her brothers.”


“Obviously that isn’t strictly true.  There is some mixing.  Suppose two hives swarm at the same time.  What’s a male going to do?  Say, ‘You aren’t my sister.  Get away.’?”


“But why do they restrict breeding to just the queen?”


“Conserves resources.  Also specialization is generally good.  Those bees are all basically clones.  They are genetically identical.  So what is good for all is good for one.  Think of them like cells in your body.  Your cells divide, but they aren’t having sex with each other.  They leave that to specialized cells in your gonads.”


“Well what about herding animals, sheep or deer or walruses.  Again mating, at least for the males, is restricted.  Isn’t that a waste of genetic diversity, assuming it is always good?”


“You can throw in bower birds, too if you like.  The males build their bowers and the females review them.  Then all the females mate with one male.  But there isn’t a scientist alive who can predict which one the females will choose.  And the females don’t seem sure either at first.  But once one of them decides, the others fall into line.  In a way its like fall fashions.”


“And the loss of diversity?”


“Well you have to balance that against selecting for good genes.  I dare say it would be possible to pick out a few losers, ones who build lousy bowers.  They probably are unfit in other ways, and eliminating them is good for the species.  Ditto for herding animals.”


“But why not have all the fit males mate; best of all possible worlds.”


“Maybe, but it really doesn’t take that many males.  With modern techniques they can keep five bulls in the Netherlands, and it’s enough.  That’s a big herd, all the cattle in the Netherlands.  I suppose you’ve eaten Dutch cheese.”


“All right, then what about reef animals, corals.  They release their gametes into the ocean.  Does that mean all corals of a species mate at random with every other coral polyp in the world?”


“Actually, that has been studied.  And it turns out that a local population is very close genetically and quite distinct from others not that far away.”


“So it’s true.  They are controlling their mating pool size and limiting genetic diversity locally.”


“Doing both of those things, yes.  But whether the purpose … sorry bad word.  Whether the effect of limiting gene pool size is beneficial, well nobody thinks so.  I expect that it’s a matter of range for the gametes.  A polyp releases a gamete to go mate with a different polyp.  It doesn’t make much sense to give it, the gamete, enough energy to travel eight thousand miles in the search.  It makes more sense, from a cost-benefit standpoint, to release a thousand times as many that can travel eight miles.  After all, the immediate vicinity is a lot more likely to be a good place for a reef than a random spot, which will mostly be deep ocean, useless to a coral.”


Jon faltered.  Hapgood took up the line of questioning.  “We have been interested in how civilizations rise and than collapse.  We suspect there is a biological reason.  Do populations in the wild rise and collapse?” 


“Of course.  Everybody has heard of lemmings.  They don’t jump into the sea, but their population surges and falls.  It’s been studied.  Sometimes, as with Florida wild turkeys, it seems that disease is what causes it.  Sometimes, as with certain populations of voles, it’s predators.  If there is only one predator eating voles, when the vole population rises, the predator population rises with it.  Then they eat just about all the voles and begin to die out.  When the predator population is low enough the vole population explodes again.  There may be a moral in it for civilizations, but I don’t know what it would be.”


“But the end result is to reduce genetic diversity among voles.”


“Maybe, but it isn’t an important effect.  Otherwise all vole populations would have the same cycle, but they don’t.”


“And why is there a greater variety of trees in a tropical jungle than in a northern forest?”


“Good question.  If you can answer it, it’ll get you a PhD in botany.  There is debate ongoing.  What everyone agrees on is that the diversity in the tropics is greater and that the forests are older.  The northern forests have only regrown since the last ice age.”


“So evolution leads to greater diversity.”


“That’s true in the large sense.  There is obviously more diversity now than when evolution got started.  But whether in time those northern forests would develop the same diversity as the tropics nobody knows.”


“But it could be that the forests have evolved a lot of different species so that the effective gene pool locally is smaller?”


“Well I’d phrase it differently; there really isn’t any purpose in it.  But to answer your question, probably not.  Nobody expects a huge die off of northern forests because their effective gene pool size was too big.  The debate nowadays is whether different species of trees in the tropics have evolved that exploit subtle differences in the environment with different advantage.  Personally I doubt that.  The bulk of the species are widely distributed and well mixed.  It would be a logger’s dream to run across a square mile with nothing but mahogany, but it doesn’t happen.  I think the main stream now would probably say that the trees are all about the same and compete on an equal footing, so they all have an equal chance and wind up mixed.” 


Jon and Hapgood took their leave and made their way to the street.


Hapgood said, “Well we didn’t quite have him turning pale with our questions, did we?”


Jon replied, “No, he didn’t seem to have any problem at all.”


They strolled the esplanade.  A marching band was playing “The Stars and Stripes Forever.”  They visited the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials.  As they stood in front of the great statue of Lincoln, Hapgood said, "Strange.  Two men have memorials in Washington of this size.  There was Jefferson, who thought that if a group wanted to separate from a government they did not support they had every right to.  And here is Lincoln, who made his greatest contribution by maintaining government over a region that wanted to secede."


"The common element," said Jon, "Is freedom.  Jefferson wanted to secede from a kingdom.  Lincoln was preventing secession from a republic."


"That's how the world sees it, but it won't wash.  The question is not the form of government.  The question is whether the government is supported by the people.  There was no French Revolution in England.  Even the colonies never wanted to topple the monarchy.  They just wanted out of it."


"I think it's time for lunch."


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