ten of the most amazing and possibly even true scientific phenomena that blow my mind

by nikki meredith

twin babies

When I was a little girl, my family camped in Yosemite Valley every summer.  My favorite memory from those trips was a night we slept outside on cots.  I assume the moon was a sliver because the sky was inky and I remember saying to my father that the stars looked like diamonds.  I must have been pretty young because when my father pointed out the Milky Way, I remember wondering it they named it after the candy bar. But the memory that stayed with me the most indelibly was when my father told me that some of the stars we were looking at had died. He explained that they were so far away that their light, or, rather, their lack of light, hadn’t yet reached us. That seemed unbelievable.   I remember trying to make out his face in the dark to see if he was kidding. When I was satisfied that he wasn’t, I looked back to the sky in awe.  I couldn’t quite grasp that I was looking at something that wasn’t there. It seemed like magic.

Last month when various news outlets were coming out with their 10 “best” lists for the year – best movies, books, t.v. shows — I thought about bests in my life and for some reason I remembered that night with my family.  Learning about unfathomable distances scored as a kind of best in my life and I wondered how of the many things I learned in 2012 stood out.  I couldn’t come up with ten for 2012.  Off the top of my head, I couldn’t even come up with one for the year. So I changed it to a lifetime and was able to list quite a few more than ten. When I told my husband about the list he asked if I was going to mention hiking to see the mountain gorillas in Rwanda. No because this isn’t about peak experiences – that’s for another day. What it is about is hard to define. The criteria for why these phenomena stuck with me for so long is a bit mysterious to me but I think most of them made the list because they offer a little piece of a larger puzzle often revealing something surprising about how the world works.   Some I remember because they’re bizarre or funny. A surprising number are about sex. Or, maybe not surprising. I was disturbed at how many lacked gravitas but even more than that, I was troubled by how many were from years ago. It’s time for me to discover more surprising facts.  Please! Send me yours!

Here’s #1 on my list.

The Jim Twins

I can’t say that learning about the Jim twins changed my life but it certainly changed my view of life.   They were identical twins separated at the age of three weeks and reunited at the age of 39 — a two-man longitudinal nature/nurture study. The similarities between them astonished researchers and when I learned about them, changed my belief in personal decision-making.  It seemed immediately obvious that there was a PLAN for everyone and all you had to do was find a comfortable chair, put your feet up, sip your mint julep and wait for the reveal.

The Jim twins became part of a project at the University of Minnesota — eventually known as the Minnesota Study of Twins Reared Apart – where their habits, their personality traits and aspects of their temperament were catalogued.  Here are just a few of the areas of similarity: Jim Lewis was a security guard at a steel mill, and Jim Springer was a deputy sheriff ; they both enjoyed math and carpentry—but hated spelling; they both smoked the same brand of cigarettes – Salems; they were both nail biters and suffered from migraine headaches.  They both liked leaving little love notes around the house for their wives. The lead researcher, Psychologist Thomas Bouchard, said he was “flabbergasted” by the number of shared characteristics.

I, however, was not flabbergasted by the above similarities.  By that time, I had children and once you have children you realize that kids come into the world with agendas of their own.  I had no idea what entity was responsible for programming these agendas,  I only knew that said entity got in there early, long before I had a chance to mould either one of them into my image or their father’s. (Which is not to say we couldn’t harm them by being bad parents but the extent to which we could influence them by being exceptionally good parents seemed pretty damn limited.)

What did stun me about the Jim twins, what made me want to surrender to the PLAN, were the similarities in the little things:

— The first time Jim #1 got married, he married a woman named Linda; the first time Jim #2 got married, he married a woman named Linda

— The second time Jim #1 got married, he married a woman named Betty;  the second time Jim #2 got married, he married a woman named Betty.

— Jim #1 had a son and he named him James Alan Lewis; Jim #2 had a son and he named him James Allan Springer

— Jim #1 had a pet dog. He named his dog “Toy”; Jim #2 had a pet dog and he named his dog “Toy”

I’m no statistician, but don’t you think that even controlling for what names for people and dogs were popular at the time, the probability of the above would be….well, improbable?

No, according to a March 8, 2000 New York Times article by Gina Kolata. She quotes a statistician who claims that we all have so many traits, that if you pluck two random people out of nowhere they will share as many traits as the Jim twins. This is known as the “multiple-end-point problem”  —  a problem, according to Stanford University statistician Persi Diaconis, that prompts us to give more weight to genetics than is warranted.

Another challenge to the genetic explanation comes from the folks over at noetics.com. They propose that the Jim twins were communicating telepathically for 39 years.   “Identical twins may be just one example of how those who are close to each other can tap into a ‘field of interconnection’ and experience it as telepathy,” writes Diane Hennacy Powell MD. According to Dr. Powell, further evidence of the extrasensory bond between the twins came at the end of their lives. She writes that they died on the same day of the same illness.

I don’t know how I feel about the mental telepathy explanation but dying on the same day of the same illness flies in the face of the “multiple end point problem.” Are you going to tell me that the likelihood of two people plucked randomly from nowhere dying on the same day of the same illness, whether or not they named their dogs Toy, is the same as the Jim twins?  According to the Kolata article, it only looks significant because we’re choosing to focus on those two facts among thousands of them. I think not. I prefer to believe that the nature of their ending is yet more evidence of a predetermined master PLAN and, though it’s sad that they died, it’s also an appropriate little ending to this story about them.

The only problem: when I tried to find out the date of their deaths and the disease that killed them, I came up empty. I spent hours on the internet looking for articles, death notices, obits. Nada.  Finally I e-mailed Nancy Segal, author of Entwined Lives and one of the original researchers on the twins project at the University of Minnesota and asked her about the nature of their deaths.

Her reply was swift:  “They live!”

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Come back in the coming weeks to see the rest of my list —  yawning orgasms, fainting goats, insatiable bulls and much, much more.

But, as I indicated earlier, I want new material so I would love to hear what others would put on such a list. What’s the most amazing or interesting fact (or facts) about the world that’s stuck with you?

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