Blog 2017

Curiosity and Its Results

Today, I want to talk to you about lymph vessels, exercise, and action figures.

Recently, it was discovered/confirmed that the brain and the meninges appear to have their own lymphatic vessels.  If you aren’t up on the anatomical terms, the lymphatic system removes waste from the body and is often paired with the cardiovascular system (arteries and veins).  In fact, because the lymphatic system is so closely tied to the veins (which return blood to the heart), it is a common misconception that veins are what remove waste.

             It was believed that the brain and the related tissues (the thin layer of material that covers the brain, called meninges) were thought to lack a lymphatic system, with the primary lymph system ending at the neck and rear of the head.  This appears to be in error and the cranial lymphatic system is now being studied for its medical implications (of which there are many).

The lymphatic system had been teased at, theorized, or miscategorized for ages, but it’s discovery is largely credited to 17th Century scientist Olof Rudbeck.  In the intervening four centuries, medical science has come to understand the role of lymph system intimately, especially when it pertains to some of the great curses upon humanity like cancer (lymphatic involvement is often a key sign in the development and severity of tumors).  Yet, we did not know of the cerebral lymphatic system until the last couple of years.  To give some perspective, this is akin to discovering a new organ.

Let’s switch gears, however.  Let’s talk about exercise.

What causes one to build muscle?  Known as muscular hypertrophy in scientific and athletic communities, hypertrophy is the building of muscle tissue and fluids to increase muscle size.  Whether we’re talking the dense muscle of a gymnast and power lifter or the ripped muscles of the body builder, both rely on increasing the muscles size (at least to some extent).  So what causes it?  The short answer is ‘we don’t know’.  The long answer is ‘we don’t know, but we have some educated guesses’.

In the 1980s, the prevailing theory of what caused muscle growth was microtrauma.  Exercise caused tiny rips and tears in the muscles and when the muscle repaired itself, it came back bigger.  In the 1990s and going into the new millennium, the new theory was that of hormones – Human Growth Hormone, Insulin-like Growth Factors, etc – were what caused muscle growth, prompting a re-evaluation of long-held protocols.  A current theory that is gaining steam is the muscle activation theory, which postulates that the weakest fibers are activated first, with increasingly stronger fibers activated subsequently.  The likelihood that this theory will stand whereas the others have been challenged seems unlikely.

So which theory is it?  Or is it something totally unknown?  Muscle growth clearly happens.  The anecdotal evidence is absolutely unquestionable.  Yet, the scientific understanding of it is almost wholly lacking.  Many of the assumptions that are held about muscle building are, in fact, scientifically invalid.  They aren’t just unverified; they are objectively wrong (I’m looking at you, slow-twitch versus fast-twitch muscle fiber hypertrophy).

So we have an amazing discovery born of curiosity and diligent scientific research.  And we have age-old traditions that persist in spite of evidence, but also still suffer from no conclusive answer.  So where do the action figures fit in?

In the early 1990s, during the height of the Power Rangers craze, I came across a line of knock-off Power Ranger action figures at my local KB Toys retailer.  Heavily discounted, I was able to buy the whole set of five figures on the spot.  Unlike most Power Ranger knock-offs, these were incredibly well-made, with sturdy joints, strong plastic, and well-sculpted accessories that were distinctive and every bit as well made as the figures.

For over two decades, I failed to discover to which franchise these figures belonged.  Whether the figures themselves were knock-offs or not, they clearly belonged to an existing franchise.  These were more than knock-offs; these were figures (or at least their molds) from their own intellectual property.  It wouldn’t be until literally last night that I would finally discover to whom they belonged: The ZAP Police Power Force.

ZAP Police Power Force was the Americanized release of the Zero-Section Armed Constable figures from the Computer Police Cybercops (It was the 90s: even in Japan, everything had to have ‘cyber’ in the name somewhere).  It wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that CPC and its heroes the ZSAC were Power Ranger knock-offs, but given Japan’s long history of sentai stories (costumed heroes, usually with thematic and color-coded outfits, as well as giant robots), it seems akin to saying X-Men is a Superman knock-off.  CPC was a show produced by studio Toho, the megalithic powerhouse of Asian cinema.  So even if this was a Power Rangers knock-off, it was hardly a cheap Power Rangers knock-off.

Discovering this, discovering the origins of these unique and delightfully enigmatic toys, was rather crushing.  It seems silly to enjoy a mysterious toy, but the idea that these toys had no distinct origin was a delightful magic.  In an era where Google brings us the accumulated knowledge of all human history, something unknown was a pleasant experience.  I’d searched for the origins of these toys before, but to no avail.  Each time I searched, I was all the more intrigued and my world was all the more enriched by the mystery.

And then, last night, I was successful.  I had found the origin of these figures.  I had solved the mystery.  And the world was just a little more mundane as a result.

Is it any wonder, then, that people cling to long-solved mysteries?  Ages after Loch Ness’ monster has been confirmed to be a prank, the perpetrators identities and methods confessed, the tale endures?  Is it any wonder that so many people cling to conspiracy theories and world mysteries?  It gives the world a much-needed magic as we face the banality of day-to-day.  Perhaps it recaptures the wide-eyed wonder we once had as children, a sense adulthood sorely lacks.

Three experiences, all born of curiosity.  The discovery of lymphatics in the brain, a discovery that will transform medicine the more it is understood.  The persistent unknown of the mechanisms behind one of the most basic and universally acknowledged biological responses.  And the crushing discovery of where enigmatic toys ultimately derived.

Curiosity is a fickle thing.  The fruits of its effort are not always good.  I want to say they are always worthwhile, but the sting of last night shakes my certainty.

Perhaps, as we discover more about the world as a species, we do not lack for things to discover, but what must be done to explore discovery requires more work.  What at one time was a simple matter of documenting and observing with the naked eye now requires training and studying, but it is no less prevalent.  And no less available.  One of the most ground-breaking events in astrophysics – the merger of two neutron stars – has been documented and the results are flooding the internet (as much as science ever floods an internet taken over with political din and celebrity fixation).

Discovery, perhaps, should become a more personal thing as well.  Just because a thing is known does not mean it is understood, does not mean it is believed, does not mean it is incorporated: merely read, merely told.  We all know that…say, a tomato is a fruit and not a vegetable.  Any idea why?  Let’s go back to training.  We know protein is needed for muscle growth and basic human functions.  Again, any idea why?

Curiosity is a fundamental trait in humans and even though it seems to be waning in the modern era as Google and other search engines (…there are other search engines, right?), in fact, curiosity can be more quickly and easily rewarded than ever.  Maybe the problem isn’t that curiosity and discovery haven’t gotten too obscure.  Maybe we just need to up our game.  Maybe we have grown complacent.  What was at one time easy to discover is a bit harder and rather than persist, we surrender when Google doesn’t find the results we want.  Perhaps we have to push, to read, to pursue.  The lymphatics of the brain would not have been discovered by way of Google.  Nor too will the ultimate solution to the cause of muscular hypertrophy.

All of this I say with a smile.  But that smile is dampened remembering the name ZAP Police Power Force.

Curiosity will always reward.  Whether that reward is what you truly want is another matter.

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