Friday, May 7, 2010

The MIRACLE that is science...

This morning, I'm initiating a new "occasional" feature in this space. A particular newspaper column was on my mind, so I searched my files to find it. It occurred to me that not everyone who reads this blog read the Tampa Tribune "back in the day". Regardless, I enjoyed it so much I'm going to share it with you today. Look for a new "Classic from the archives" every couple of weeks or so.

The Back of My Hand - Derek Maul, The Tampa Tribune; August 3rd, 2005: This time last week I reached blindly for my sunglasses and somehow cut the back of my hand. The nerve receptors on the first layer of skin prompted me in the way only pain can, and I pulled back. Consequently, the three-inch cut turned out to be more of a scratch than a laceration.

Because I use a computer keyboard every day I have had the opportunity to closely observe the process of healing.

“Healing,” say Thomas Romo III and Lee Ann McLaughlin in a 2003 Emedicine article, “is the interaction of a complex cascade of cellular events that generates resurfacing, reconstitution, and restoration of the tensile strength of injured skin.”

It took the learned doctors close to a thousand highly specific and extremely hard to pronounce words to describe what happened in the first 5-10 minutes after I scratched my hand. Unfortunately, as I was driving to a restaurant at the time, I missed most of it.

Some of the highlights of those first minutes included hemorrhage, vasoconstriction – I knew both those words without looking them up – and an amazingly complex gathering together of resources by the body; everything from containment, to infection, to the release of a variety of helping chemicals - including serotonin. Finally, the initial triage was concluded by the onset of coagulation.

Lest you think things tailed off from there, I have to point out that my body was just getting going. While I consumed Italian food the surface of my hand started to throb, signaling an activation of inflammatory pathways, an intervention designed to modify events to come.

There were histamines to activate, pH levels to adjust, and proteins to stimulate. Then, a cadre of friendly neutrophils charged in like the cavalry to cleanse the area of bacteria and necrotic debris.

Obviously, I am merely scratching the surface here. Stuff has been going on with the back of my hand for a week now and thinking about it has simply blown me away. The full scientific paper, describing exactly what was going on, totaled a mind-numbing 4,300 words and gave me a headache; attaining a more complete understanding of the miracle, however, fed my soul.

Little by little, the imperative of life coalesced all the various processes until the protective translucent wrapper fell away to reveal brand-new skin, recreated even to the fine details of freckle, tint, and wrinkle.

From the 18th to the 20th Centuries, answers suggested by science and rationalism led many people to eliminate the word “miracle” from their vocabulary. I have an old college friend who uses the term “free-thinker” to describe what he understands as an intellect unconstrained by such superstitions as God; he believes those who trust in God are not free to seek more realistic explanations.

As I observed my regenerated skin knit together this week, I also slogged my way through details that allowed me to understand the exact nature of the physical processes that took place. I did not pray for God to heal my hand, but I did watch him do it.

Maybe I have a limited intellect...? Maybe if I were a true free-thinker I would refuse to think freely enough to allow for the possibility of divinity...? All I know is this: The more wonders I see, the more science I understand, the deeper into space I peer through my telescope, and the further into atomic matter I allow concepts like quantum physics and string theory to take me. . . . Well, the more I believe in miracles.

It’s like something you’ve never seen before; something like the back of your hand.

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