STRANGE BUT TRUE- Dimensional treat: Why worms will crawl a wall


DRAWING BY DEBORAH DERR McCLINTOCK

Q. A reader once noticed that the south side of her was house covered with earthworms from the ground all the way up to the roof. She tried to convince her husband to come out for a look, but he refused, and when she went back outside a half hour later, the worms were gone. Nobody believes that story. What might explain the worm behavior? –C. Stuart

A. Once or twice each summer, earthworms of many species migrate not only across the surface of the soil but right up vertical surfaces such as moss-covered rocks, trees, even walls (as long as they're not too abrasive or slippery smooth), says Lee Frelich, Director of the University of Minnesota Center for Hardwood Ecology. The earthworms commonly move 10-15 feet, probably to find new habitat and to mate, since it is easier to find other members of the species on a two-dimensional surface than in the three-dimensional world of underground tunnels. Also, some earthworm species move away from soils that lack oxygen after heavy rain or that contain pesticides. Earthworms move at night or on cloudy, rainy days because otherwise they would be desiccated by the sun and perish within minutes.

Q. Why worry about extraterrestrials when your gut's been colonized by myriad species of inner space invaders? –E.T.

A. The count of intestinal inhabitants in each of us far exceeds the human population of Earth, says Samuel Baron, editor of Medical Microbiology. They make up two-thirds of toilet solids. 

"Sanitary plumbing which separates these organisms from drinking water has probably saved more lives than any medical intervention," he writes.

Ranging from microscopic viruses to 60-foot tapeworms, most are benign or even beneficial in aiding digestion and nutrition, and in battling potentially harmful viruses, bacteria, protozoa and parasites. Battles lost often become gastrointestinal upset ("I think I've got a bug").

Unlike hypothetical aliens from outer space, none of the intestinal dwellers manifests higher intelligence,but they possess tentacles, mouths, coverings, projections, and can double their numbers in 30 minutes flat. "Some astronomers believe similar microorganisms may drift through space and colonize inhabitable planets, and may evolve eventually into higher life forms, even intelligent life," Baron hypothesizes.

Q. Without clocks or the sun to go by, what would happen to our sense of time? –S. Thomas

A. When a young Italian woman named Stefania Follini volunteered to spend four months alone in a 20-by-12-foot windowless room built inside a cave in New Mexico, her days soon increased to 25 hours, then even longer until she was staying awake for stretches of 40 hours or more and sleeping 14 to 22 hours, says John P. Dworetzky in Psychology.

Early on, she reported her menstrual cycles had stopped, and she felt almost totally out of sync with the world left behind. After four months, when asked to estimate how much time had passed, she said two months, only to be told it was already May and time to end the experiment.

Q. Is there medical evidence of "faith healing"? –J. Falwell

A. Try a placebo, the most potent drug known and with the fewest side effects, says Peter Smith, pharmacologist and neuroscientist at the University of Alberta. "But you have to believe in it," he says.

Placebos are inert substances, often used in "double- blind" studies– neither researcher nor subjects know who's taking the real medicine– to rule out imagined effects.

And powerful these effects are: the pill-taker hopes the pill will work and so, mysteriously, it does— even though pharmacologically, it shouldn't! "I don't know of any studies that have fully explained this," says Dr. Smith.

Possibly anxiety and despair suppress the immune system, then the hope-giving placebo bolsters the body's natural defenses to help fight off injury, infection, cancer, says Reg Morgan, physiologist at the University of Western Australia. The same mechanism may assist doctors with "a good bed-side manner."

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Send Strange questions to brothers Bill and Rich at strangetrue@cs.com.

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