Worm’s-Eye View

by John Derbyshire

Hoping to get a handle on the Wal-Mart case, and with an idle 20 minutes waiting for Mrs. D to pick me up from the auto-repair shop, I purchased a copy of the New York Times.

I didn’t get far with Wal-Mart. Reading about legal minutiae makes my eyes glaze over. I can’t even see why “class action” is thought to be a valid concept in jurisprudence. It just seems to me like a lawyers’ ramp. But then, I have no legal training, only common sense (“Stone Age metaphysics” — Bertrand Russell) to work from. I’ll leave legal commentary to those better qualified.

Bored with the law stuff, I turned to the Times Science Section, where I’m much more at home. Here there is a fascinating piece on neuroscience.

The tiny worm C. elegans has been a favorite with neuroscience researchers for decades, on account of the simplicity of its brain: just 302 neurons and 8,000 synapses. The corresponding numbers for a human brain are 100 billion and 100 trillion. Figuring out how a C. elegans brain works would therefore be only the merest baby step towards understanding our own brains. It seems worthwhile none the less.

Researcher Cornelia Bargmann’s been slogging away at it for 24 years, with some interesting results. What caught my eye, though, was these words of praise she quotes from a fellow researcher, H. Robert Horvitz:

Horvitz told me that my great strength as a scientist was that I could think like a worm.

Hm. Given 24 years, I bet I could get myself thinking like a worm. Whether I could ever get myself thinking like a lawyer, I’m not so sure.

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